Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Universities leading the green wa(y)ve

Even the most skeptical have now come around to accepting the fact that we on earth are guzzling way more resources than the earth can sustain. Amongst many other consequences, the most disturbing are the effects on global climate change.

Anyway, people around the States are slowly beginning to think about consequences, and are starting to make minor changes in their lifestyles, with perhaps huge consequences. Of course, national policy and politics will be the last to change, as is always the case. But I think universities, as centers of learning, should be trend setters in changing their own ways of energy consumption and resource utilization.

So, I was more than pleased to read an editorial in the alumni magazine I get from Seattle every few months or so. There, I read about some rather interesting research from the UW on some pioneering research on oceans and the effect of temperatures on ocean acidification, coral deaths and the massive consequences that will have for ocean life (and thereby life on earth itself). But more importantly, I read that the old alma mater was at least starting to do its role in fixing the problem.

There is a clear effort from the school in minimizing carbon emissions. This was apparent even while I was a student there, and it isn’t too surprising since it was Seattle. After all, it is the granola city of America. People recycle with a vengeance there, and all household trash is sorted into paper, cardboard, plastic, yard waste and whatever else. But most large public places (like large universities) lag behind in recycling. Not the UW though. Corridors and hallways would all have separate bins for paper (white or colored), general trash, and cans and bottles. More importantly, even the large public bins around campus were cleverly designed to incorporate a receptacle for cans and bottles. The (men’s) toilets around campus installed “water free” urinals. Yup, I can hear a snicker, but we were all just as skeptical when they first installed them. We thought the stench would make us all abandon the labs and stay at home, but were pleasantly surprised. The technology actually works, and very well too. This apparently saves some 30000 gallons of water a year per urinal! I thought it was a particularly positive effort in the water-rich Pacific Northwest.

Then there would be regular emails to all of us reminding us to turn off the lights after work. No one complained when the university started to increase the temperature of hallways by one degree in summer, and cooling it by one degree in winter (this little change saved thousands of kilowatts of energy annually). Additionally, the university is fantastically connected by public transport, which means a lot of people can (and do) take the bus. There are bike racks everywhere, to park your bicycles, and importantly, you could even get yourself a bike locker (costing a mere 60 dollars a year or something), where you could store your bike securely on campus. This meant that thousands of students, staff and faculty would gear up and happily bike to work, obviously saving tons of gas.

Now, in the alumni magazine, I was pleased to read that the efforts of the university don’t just end here. The UW has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 to seven percent below 1990 levels, and this isn’t just rhetoric. Already, gas emissions have declined over the past five years by 9 percent, even as the student population increases. That, to me, is serious commitment.

While the general support for a “greener” lifestyle in Seattle certainly helps the university adopt such practices with overwhelming support from the students and staff, I think it is particularly important for universities to go in this direction for a number of reasons. First, since most of our knowledge and research about global climate change (and human actions causing it) comes from universities, it is imperative that the schools practice what they discover. Second, university labs are hotspots of innovation, and invariably come up with next generation technology, which includes “greener” technology. It makes perfect sense if universities also pioneer in their adoption. Third, there are thousands of students in any campus. By seeing how greener technologies work, or how simple efforts can make major changes, students can go on to adopt these methods themselves, and can evangelize these methods as they graduate and move on. And finally, from the university’s own perspective, it is fantastic PR, and while image isn’t everything, it means quite a lot.

So, to cut a long story short, this is terrific. I just hope other large institutes and universities adopt similar methods. And since some of you readers are in school, what do you see around your campus that is sustainable, and what to you seems wasteful?


Anonymous said...


I have been a lurker here for about 2 yrs but had to respond to this. My current grad school Johns Hopkins Univ (JHU) has just made a commitment to be completely carbon neutral in the near future (I read 2020 somewhere but can't find it now). Here is what I found with a quick search about the policies - http://www.jhu.edu/~gazette/2007/23jul07/23climate.html
I too, am thankful that universities, as bastions of learning, are finally getting with the program and are not waiting for a terribly timid political class or a don't care populace to wake up. As for increasing the heat in the air conditioned hallways of my dept, we would so love it - it's freezing out here! Want to end this long comment by saying I really like your blog, keep it up.

Sunil said...

urmila.....lurking is great, but you're more than welcome to comment.

That's great that JHU is starting something in the *right* direction. I hate supercold airconditioners though. And it's terrible in Texas, where it's 90 degrees outside, but the school insists on keeping the inside temperature somewhere close to 68. They could easily raise temperatures by about 5 degrees, save tons of energy AND keep us all much more comfortable.

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