Americas, Climate Change

First in class: how schools and universities are practising what they preach on carbon emissions

UN Environment | May 22, 2019


This article was originally published by Un Environment and is republished with permission.

With young people driving a global wake-up call on climate change, it is no surprise to find schools and universities leading by example and reducing carbon emissions, promoting renewable energy and becoming hotbeds of activism on the defining issue for a generation.

In Britain, several universities have declared a “climate emergency”, reflecting growing student unease over the slow pace of official action. Bristol University did so in April, saying it wanted to acknowledge the deep concerns of its students. It is already acting to reduce its own carbon footprint.

The university has reduced carbon emissions by 27 per cent 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.

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.

“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,” said Professor Judith Squires, deputy vice-chancellor and provost.

Across the world, UN Environment is working with universities to set up national and regional Green Universities Networks to enable institutions to incorporate low carbon-climate resilience development strategies and sustainability in education, training and campus operations.

“Decarbonizing 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. “Schools 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.”

UN Environment has produced the Greening Universities Toolkit V.2.0 to inspire universities to develop strategies for green, resource-efficient and low carbon campuses.

“Evidence, however, shows that many universities are struggling with the concept and agenda of university “greening”; achievements to date have been scattered and unsystematic,” the toolkit says. “While some noteworthy exemplars of university sustainability initiatives exist around the world, there is a need to maximize the potential benefits by encouraging their replication in as many universities as possible globally.”

Many positive examples exist to inspire action.

For example, Bowdoin College in Maine 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 per cent, from 16,326 metric tons in 2008 to 11,620 metric tons in 2017.

Bowdoin 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 per cent 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. Bowdoin is also 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.

In Washington D.C., American University also reached carbon neutrality two years ahead of schedule. It now uses 21 per cent 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 while 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.

Fifty per cent of American University’s power needs come from a solar panel farm it established in North Carolina in partnership with George Washington University and George Washington University Hospital. The other 50 per cent 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 is working with other Kenyan educational institution 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.

Students across the world 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.

The beauty of such action is that its effects 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.

The Green Schools Alliance tries to harness this youthful enthusiasm and connects more than 13,000 sustainability champions across more than 9,000 schools, districts and organisations from 48 U.S. states and 91 countries.

The Alliance believes that schools act as community hubs, helping to transform markets, policy, education and behaviour. Its approach focuses on Whole School Sustainability, which means integrating sustainable solutions into the physical space, organizational culture and educational programmes.

For Bristol University student, Giles Atkinson, who had a key role in organizing 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.


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