UN urges universities to be catalysers of sustainability
In a report published on its website, it says some schools and universities are leading by example and reducing carbon emissions, promoting renewable energy and becoming “hotbeds of activism on the defining issue for a generation”.
But, it says, “while some noteworthy exemplars of university sustainability initiatives exist around the world, there is a need to maximise the potential benefits by encouraging their replication in as many universities as possible globally.”
Across the world, UN Environment is working with universities to set up national and regional Green University Networks to enable institutions to incorporate low carbon-climate resilience development strategies and sustainability in education, training and campus operations.
“Decarbonising our economies and lives will be a defining and recurrent element of any profession until the end of this century,” said Niklas Hagelberg, coordinator of the Climate Change Programme at UN Environment. He said going carbon-neutral provides a great opportunity to “demystify carbon neutrality for students” and can give them a practical experience through inclusion in curricula and operations of the school or university.
UN Environment has produced the Greening Universities Toolkit V2.0 to inspire universities to design, develop and implement strategies for green, resource-efficient and low carbon campuses.
The toolkit aims to encourage and promote the contribution of universities to the overall sustainability of the planet and help them become agents of change. Drawing on innovations and best practice in sustainability, it looks at defining sustainability, initiating transformations, indicators, technologies for transformation, policy governance and administration and resources for change.
It includes dozens of case studies from Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America outlining sustainable campus innovations implemented.
In Britain, declaring a climate change emergency, the University of Bristol had already become what is thought to be the world’s first higher education institution to issue its own ‘climate emergency’ declaration, reflecting growing student unease over the slow pace of official action. Two weeks later, parliament, on 5 May made history by declaring a ‘climate change emergency’.
Bristol University said it wanted to acknowledge the deep concerns of its students and reaffirm its “strong and positive commitment to take action on climate change”. It is already acting to reduce its own carbon footprint.
The university has reduced carbon emissions by 27% since 2005 through a combination of technical measures, including heating controls and LED lighting. It has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030 and in March 2018 it announced plans to divest completely from all investments in fossil fuel companies within two years.
“The University of Bristol plays a key role in fighting climate change; it does this through its research, its teaching and how it operates,” said Professor Judith Squires, deputy vice-chancellor and provost.
“Calling a climate emergency highlights the urgency of the task we are engaged in and I hope others join us in increasing their action on this, the biggest challenge we face.”
UN Environment said it is fitting that Bristol University should be a leader in this field: it houses the Cabot Institute for the Environment, home to several of the lead authors on reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including last year’s devastating analysis that the world is running out of time to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Many other positive examples among universities exist to inspire innovation and action.
Achieving carbon neutrality
For example, Bowdoin College in Maine in the United States became carbon neutral in 2018, two years ahead of the schedule it pledged as part of the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments. The private liberal arts college reduced its carbon emissions by 29%, from 16,326 metric tons in 2008 to 11,620 metric tons in 2017.
Bowdoin College installed a cogeneration turbine, which produces electricity as a by-product of generating heat, converted buildings from oil to natural gas, insulated 5,100 feet of underground steam tunnels, replaced thousands of lights with efficient LED bulbs and diverted more than 50% of its waste from landfills.
To account for its remaining emissions, the college is investing in carbon offsets with regional impacts, and in renewable energy credits associated with wind farms. Additionally, Bowdoin is announcing a pioneering renewable energy project partnership that will result in the largest solar array in the state of Maine.
This will involve working with other educational institutions to help fund construction of a 75-megawatt solar project in Farmington. The project is expected to offset nearly half of Bowdoin’s annual electricity consumption.
As part of its carbon neutrality action plan, Bowdoin has held energy reduction contests, trained eco-reps to educate the campus community and employed about 200 students to raise awareness about climate change among their peers.
It has increased its composting of food waste, switched security officers out of vehicles and onto bikes to use less petrol, and has insulated buildings and sealed doors and windows to reduce energy waste.
In Washington DC, American University also reached carbon neutrality two years ahead of schedule. It now uses 21% less energy per square foot than it did in 2005.
The college has six LEED-certified buildings, with four others planned. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the most widely used green building rating system in the world.
American University also has eight green roofs, seven solar panel arrays and nine bioretention basins and rain gardens. All of its shuttle buses run on biodiesel, the campus is also bicycle-friendly and the university has planted more than 1.2 million trees in the city to offset greenhouse gas emissions from commuting.
Half of American University’s power needs come from a solar panel farm it established in North Carolina in partnership with the George Washington University and George Washington University Hospital. The other half comes from renewable energy credits.
Australia’s Charles Sturt University was certified the country’s first carbon neutral university in 2016. As well as procuring carbon offsets, it has introduced electric carts on campuses, commissioned solar photovoltaic systems, established battery recycling centres and beefed up its recycling processes.
In Kenya, Strathmore University set out to become the first climate neutral university in the country and installed a 0.6 MW rooftop solar plant to provide energy and reduce its carbon footprint. The Strathmore Energy Research Centre decided to export the excess energy to the grid and a power purchase agreement was signed in 2015. The solar plant is also used as a live laboratory to train technicians to design and maintain such installations.
UN Environment says it is working with other Kenyan educational institutions through the Kenya Green University Network, which was launched in 2016 in collaboration with the National Environment Management Authority and the Commission for University Education. The aim is to integrate sound environmental practices and knowledge sharing into Kenya’s 70 public and private universities.
Direct personal action
Students across the world in schools and universities have also taken direct, personal action. At West Hollow Middle School in Long Island in the United States, students have taken the UN’s Climate Neutral Now pledge to measure the school’s greenhouse gas emissions, reduce what they can and offset the rest using certified emissions reductions.
UN Environment said such action has effects that ripple out into the community. West Hollow School has produced a full curriculum for teachers to raise awareness among students and encourage both pupils and staff to also work on reducing their carbon footprints at home.
For Bristol University student, Giles Atkinson, who had a key role in organising the petition to declare a climate emergency, universities can take a leading role in responding to climate change.
“This [climate emergency] declaration will help communicate the urgency of the situation and inspire further action. We hope that other universities follow suit,” he said.