Greener college campuses

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports this morning on a paper given at a European conference on higher education. The co-authors suggest a number of ways for colleges to cut greenhouse emissions.

a side note: as I've been writing this, I realize that I am very cranky this morning. I probably need to drink more coffee. But something about this particular presentation really is bothering me. So, be warned. This gets rather ranty. Perhaps to the point of nonsense...

One of their big points is that schools should switch from winter classes to summer classes -- they argue that it doesn't make sense to hold classes then. You should just read the summary from the Chronicle. Here:

From a standpoint of energy use, it doesn’t make sense to hold classes in the coldest and darkest months of the year, Mr. Everett and Mr. Copeland say; perhaps switching the academic year to the summer makes more sense.

“This is likely to be very controversial, particularly with academic staff who have seen the summer months traditionally as a period for research,” they write in their report. “However, it is possible that a shift of a week or a few weeks in terms times or semester times to decrease the use of heating and lighting in university buildings could significantly reduce the carbon emissions of an institution.”

They say academics and students should also cut back on travel. “This is a potential area of great conflict,” they write, because academics and students like to travel, and it’s particularly important for foreign-exchange students.

Institutions might also allow academics to work from home more often, and require them to live closer to campus, to cut down on the energy used in commuting.


So, the suggestions: summer classes rather than winter classes; less travel; faculty should live closer to campus.

I think you know what I'm going to say about the faculty living closer to campus thing: only when it's affordable. Sorry. I don't like the commute and I'm very aware of our carbon emissions because of it. That would be why we drive a small, energy efficient car. We cannot afford prices in the town where our campus is -- I would much prefer to live where I could actually walk to campus, but we can't at this point. (And don't pretend like it's okay to tell faculty what to do in their personal lives. Maybe we should require everyone to become vegetarians while we're at it - that would cut a major source of greenhouse gases, too.)

I understand the suggestion to travel less -- it does do a great deal of harm to the environment to fly, certainly. But that's just not going to stop happening (although, maybe I should try to take the train more often ...). One of the reasons that this suggestion doesn't work for American Universities is the size of the country and the way that academics disperse for jobs (this might work in England and Europe). You cannot tell me that because I'm an academic I shouldn't get to see my family. But to get to them, I have not choice but to fly (the in-laws, for example, live in Hawaii. That's a long canoe ride). If we lived in Europe -- and had access to better train systems -- we could do less carbon-intensive travel, certainly.

On the issue of summer to winter class, I understand the suggestion in terms of using lights -- certainly we turn the lights on for longer when we're teaching. Although the lights would be on in the summer to, so I guess I'm not quite following this as much as I initially thought. My bigger question about this -- and this is from the perspective of teaching in a hot climate -- is whether this really would do any good. Wouldn't the emissions required to run air-conditioning all summer be worse? Or at least a negligible difference? In most temperate to cool climates, you'd still have to run the heat during the winter to avoid burst pipes, even if it's at a slightly lower temperature than you would while students are in classes. (I remember the buildings at Augustana being really cold in the winter anyway).

I think the reason that I'm cranky about this (beside the need for more coffee) is that this doesn't really address the problem of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission. Certainly, colleges and universities can do better -- and many schools are. And many faculty and students are doing more to protect the environment.

But shouldn't a more important part of the greening of our campuses come from an insistence that the businesses we have contracts with (like the soft-drink makers) have better environmental standards?

More importantly, shouldn't we be giving our attention to the companies that have much higher carbon emissions than universities? I don't know, like oil refineries?

Man. I'm grumpy. And I'm afraid I sound anti-environmentalist in this. But I'm not (you know that). While I think it's important for universities to be responsible stewards of environmental resources, I question this sort of invasive practice.

I realize that it's just a paper at a conference, but it really got my blood boiling unnecessarily this morning (the commenter over on The Chronicle is not particularly impressed with it either).

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