Climate change is no longer just a debate in lecture theatres or a key issue for researchers to put under the microscope: universities have also found themselves at the sharp end of changing weather patterns.
During the storms and sea surges of 2007 on England’s east coast, Hull University’s archives suffered two floods in quick succession to its basement storage that houses irreplaceable archives and manuscripts dating from the 11th century.
Earlier this year, Aberystwyth University was forced to evacuate hundreds of students from seafront accommodation as winter storms battered the Welsh coastline.
So, it is not surprising that the country’s higher education institutions are taking the issue much more seriously.
Greenwich’s drive to ‘green’ the university
In one of the most ambitious projects of its kind the University of Greenwich, overlooking London’s dockland regeneration, will soon open its landmark £76 million (US$128 million) Stockwell Street development in a drive to become the United Kingdom’s greenest university.
The project is one of the clearest physical signs yet that climate change and environmental concerns are moving up the British higher education agenda.
Among the building’s features is a 14-terrace green roof offering multifunctional benefits for managing storm water, increasing biodiversity and creating social spaces.
The Stockwell Street roof gardens will include outdoor classrooms, terraced teaching and research areas as well as beehives, a meteorological station, and experimental planting plots. There will also be solar powered units to explore growing algae for biofuel and other by-products.
The building’s design drew on the university’s architectural expertise and has ‘living walls’ with plants growing on them to improve the appearance, take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen.
Building on a strong research base
Although less well known than some of its London neighbours, Greenwich has been steadily building a strong reputation for environmental research through its Sustainable Built Environment Research Group, or SBERG, and via its 100-year-old Natural Resources Institute, which delivers high quality research, advice, teaching and training in support of global food security and poverty reduction in Africa.
But it wasn’t until about five years ago that the university decided to move sustainability from the labs and classrooms into the way the university was managed. Until then it had languished near the bottom of the green campus league tables.
Progress has been impressive, with Greenwich going from 103rd place in the People and Planet Green League in 2009 to first in 2012. The table is organised by one of Britain’s largest student networks and ranks UK universities by environmental and ethical performance. (See 'Students rank green universities – Oxford fails', also in this issue)
Last year, Greenwich went a stage further by winning the Times Higher Education award for Outstanding Contribution to Sustainable Development. Judges said they recognised the university’s “remarkable achievement of attaining and sustaining a standard that not just matches best practice elsewhere, but introduces its own innovations”.
Achievements noted by the judges included a 22% reduction in the university’s carbon footprint since 2005, with a 40% cut envisaged by 2020; 200 solar panels installed on student accommodation; 100% of university computers benefiting from power-down software; and achieving ISO 14001 accreditation – which provides assurance that environmental impact is being measured and improved.
“The methodology devised by the university to achieve this was noted as having clear potential for use by other institutions with similar ambitions to make a step change in their sustainability performance,” said judge Patrick Finch, bursar and director of estates at the University of Bristol.
Taking sustainability to the highest level
Vice-Chancellor Professor David Maguire told University World News: “Quite simply, sustainability is a key issue for everyone and it is at the heart of everything we do at Greenwich.
“For a long time we’ve carried out major research in this area and provided education at both degree and postgraduate level in fields such as environmental science and landscape and architecture. Climate change and reducing our impact on the environment is something our staff and students feel very strongly about.
“So now we’re ‘walking the talk’ and applying our expertise in designing buildings of the future and introducing new and novel ways to take sustainability to a higher level.”
As well as introducing its own bicycle hire scheme and encouraging staff and students to grow their food in window boxes and on university ‘allotments’, Greenwich is embarking on an ambitious project to power its Medway campus, with 5,000 students, via a combined heat and power plant.
“It’s an experimental project and the first of its kind using glycerol as a biofuel,” said Maguire.
Much of the early drive for developing and embedding the sustainability policy at the university came from the students and staff and the 2008 Climate Change Act, which called for a 34% reduction in energy usage by bodies like universities by 2020.
In 2009, the university created a new role, head of sustainability, and appointed Kat Thorne. She said: “We had staff champions in every department and worked closely with the National Union of Students Green Impact Scheme, with students auditing us every year to see how much progress different areas were making.
“The turning point was when people could see that sustainability was more than just a good thing to do, but that it supported the university’s mission and also made financial sense. This is core business and it goes beyond the Estates department. Everyone can make a contribution.”
Thorne recently moved on to a similar role at King’s College London, where the challenges may be even greater given KCL’s sprawling patchwork of buildings dotted around the capital.
Dom Anderson, National Union of Students vice-president for society and citizenship, told University World News their surveys showed 80% of students wanted their institutions to do more on sustainability.
“We’re proud that so many students and institutions like the University of Greeenwich are taking such strong action on one of today’s critical social justice issues.”
Andrew Smith, head of estates and sustainable development at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said, “It's great to see universities like Greenwich really leading the way on this and seeing the benefits in terms of student experience, business resilience and cost reduction.
“These things add up to a significant competitive advantage and fit perfectly with the role that universities have in civic society.”
* Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and public relations consultant who regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers' association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He was runner-up in the UK Education Journalism 2013 Awards for Outstanding Online Education Commentary.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters