Universities join forces to promote sustainability

Around the world, academics in universities, other tertiary education organisations and students have joined forces to establish associations aimed at promoting and supporting sustainability within their own and other institutions.

The following list includes some of the better known associations:

Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability is a non-profit member-based organisation representing higher and further education institutions within Australia and New Zealand that aims to promote and support change towards best practice sustainability within the tertiary education sector.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education has as its mission the aim of empowering higher education to lead the sustainability transformation in the United States by providing resources, professional development and a network of support to enable institutions of higher education “to model and advance sustainability in everything they do, from governance and operations to education and research”.

The Cambridge Sustainability Network based at Britain’s Cambridge University is a network involving several thousand senior leaders and leading practitioners from across all sectors and regions, representing business, the public sector and civil society.

The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges is the “sustainability champion for universities and colleges” in Britain. The EAUC says it is run by members, for its members, and seeks to work with members and partners “to drive sustainability to the heart of further and higher education”.

Daejayon is a non-governmental organisation for the environmental movement consisting of university students throughout the world. A member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and approved by the Korean Ministry of Environment, Daejayon says human beings are in crisis because of the unprecedented destruction of the environment “and it is young people who can solve the problem”. The group says it has helped established 20,000 ‘green campuses’ around the globe.

Fostering Education & Environment for Development in The Philippines, or FEED Inc, operates as a social enterprise, partnering with the University of the Philippines and is registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission as a non-profit, non-governmental organisation.

“We aim to harness market forces from the public, private, NGO sectors in a participatory manner in order to establish efficient and effective partnerships towards achieving our social mission,” says the website.

“FEED offers scholarships to underprivileged students pursuing degrees in agriculture, environmental sciences, food security, climate change and sustainable development, encouraging leadership in the sustainable development of our natural resources and protection of the environment. Our projects include national reforestation of indigenous woods to sustain the agricultural livelihood of impoverished communities.”

Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability, or GUPES, is one of the flagship programmes of the UN Environment Programme’s environmental education and training unit. It builds on the success of the Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in African, or MESA, Universities, the nascent Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in the Caribbean Universities, or MESCU, and the Asia-Pacific Regional University Consortium.

More than 420 universities and regional partners from five continents are part of the growing GUPES network.

“GUPES aims to promote the integration of environment and sustainability concerns into teaching, research, community engagement and the management of universities including greening of university infrastructure/facilities/operations, as well as to enhance student engagement and participation in sustainability activities,” says its website.

The International Sustainable Campus Network provides a global forum to support leading colleges, universities and corporate campuses in the exchange of information, ideas and best practices for achieving sustainable campus operations and integrating sustainability in research and teaching.

‘Strategic development’ is guided by a steering committee including representatives of the five institutions that host the network: EPF Lausanne; ETH Zurich; Nanyang Technological University; the National University of Singapore, and the University of Hong Kong.

The Nordic Sustainable Campus Network was created in 2012 to strengthen the sustainability efforts already in action in the Nordic higher education institutions. The network offers a platform for communication and activities to the member universities, and is open for all Nordic universities and higher education institutions.

The Taiwan Sustainable Campus Project has contributed to curriculum development as well as decreasing the environmental impact of campus operation since 2010. It involves educational institutions from primary schools to universities nationwide totalling more than 500 schools which conduct activities such as changing to renewable energy, rooftop gardening and creating biotope spaces.

The Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science is financed by the Japanese government and involves several leading higher education institutions.

People and Planet: Student action on world poverty and the environment. Founded in 1969, People and Planet is the largest student network in Britain “campaigning to end world poverty, defend human rights, and protect the environment”.

With more than 40 years experience supporting student activism and global citizenship, People and Planet says it trains and supports more than 2,000 volunteers in campaigning groups at schools, colleges and universities across Britain.

“The campaigns engage and empower over 20,000 young people to take positive action for social and environmental justice each year,” the site declares. “Our cutting-edge campaigns are democratically chosen and implemented by the members of our student network and elected students on our board of trustees keep us independent, original and effective.”

world.edupartners work with universities and organisations bringing climate and sustainability into education, business and lifestyle while pursuing climate neutrality in their own operations. Focusing on innovation, ethics and sustainability says its aim is to publish “the very best information, opportunities and experiences”.

Top green universities: QS World Rankings devotes one of its websites to describing the efforts of universities around the world to turn green and to encourage students to play their part.

In 2010, QS says, there were 84 new solar energy installations at US campuses, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, or AASHE.

In the same period, AASHE reported 29 completed or ongoing campus energy overhauls in the US, each creating a potential US$50 million in savings over the next 10 years.

The site quotes Louise Hazan, campaigns and communications manager for climate change for the People and Planet website, that around 80% of a university’s carbon footprint is related to the behaviour of staff and students – how they use energy, travel, what they consume and so on. In addition, as Hazan points out, “behaviour and values learnt at university have a long-lasting impact on graduates throughout their lives”.

“So, while carbon reduction, renewable energy and recycling schemes are all important, getting the entire university community on board is absolutely essential. Many universities are recognizing these demands, and are investing in greener buildings, greener practices and products, and ways of engaging staff and students,” the webpage states.

The site then lists some examples of green university initiatives:
  • • Sustainable building design: The University of Texas at Dallas has won multiple awards for its student services building, which is designed to stay naturally cool and light, cutting down on energy used for air conditioning and lighting.
  • • Renewable energy: The ‘Green Lighthouse’ building at the University of Copenhagen generates its own energy from solar cells and panels, storing excess energy underground. Meanwhile Green Mountain College in Vermont, US, is participating in a local ‘cow power’ scheme. This delivers energy generated by burning methane from, you guessed it, cow dung.
  • • Water bottle re-use: At some campuses the installation of ‘hydration stations’ – basically taps in the wall – makes it easy to refill and re-use water bottles. The idea is to cut down on packaging waste and carbon emissions from transportation. In some cases the sale of bottled water is actually banned on campus.
  • • Locally produced food: Canada’s University of Northern British Columbia has taken its support of local food producers to a new level by hosting a weekly farmers market on campus. Others, such as the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, have on-site community gardens where students can grow their own organic produce.
  • • Waste disposal: The University of Lausanne in Switzerland disposes of food waste by sending it to a nearby farm, where it is used to produce organic fertilizers and also biogas fuel, generating heat and electricity for the farm and neighbouring community. At the University of Peru, paper waste is sold to a recycling company, with the proceeds providing scholarships for students from low-income backgrounds.
  • • Green transport: Many campuses operate cycle hire or loan schemes. At Duke University in the US, for example, students can borrow bikes free of charge, using their student cards, and also bring in their own bikes for free repairs. At the University of Oslo in Norway, staff and students can use recharging stations for electric cars without charge, to promote this greener mode of travel.
  • • Awareness-raising events: People and Planet says 65% of UK universities now hold some kind of environment or ‘Go Green’ week. Inter-university collaborations and competitions are also growing in popularity. In North America, universities compete in challenges such as ‘RecycleMania’ and ‘Do it in the Dark’, to recycle the most or save the most energy in a set period of time.

How can students get involved?

The role of students in helping to establish more environmentally friendly universities cannot be underestimated. In many cases, students are the main drivers and developers of a project.
For example, students at India’s College of Engineering, Attingal, took the initiative in turning five acres of barren campus land into a thriving allotment, which is now providing organic vegetables for both students and the local community.

At the University of Sussex in the UK, students have established a ‘freecycling’ shop. Run by volunteers, this is a place where students can donate any unwanted items, and in turn find things they need – such as clothes, books and cooking equipment. So unwanted items get re-used instead of going to a landfill site, energy used to make and transport new products is reduced, and students save money: wins all round.

Similarly, at the University of Victoria in Canada, students run a scheme to fix up old bikes and lend them out free of charge, along with some training in safe commuter cycling.
At the University of Tokyo in Japan, the same is done with second-hand laptops.

The list goes on, and even where students are not able to fully implement or fund projects, their ideas and campaigns play a huge role in influencing the decisions made by university departments. AASHE’s Niles Barnes says many universities cite pressure from students as a major factor in deciding to sign up to environmental commitments.

So, if you’re keen to make a difference to the world, there’s no need to wait until you graduate. And what better place to start your green crusade than with the campus where you’ll be spending the next three or more years?