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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January/February 2008

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Editorial - Greening Campuses and Residences

Guilt and opportunity can shake hands. Every day we witness new schemes by all manner of organizations seeking to go carbon neutral, driven by these two factors. In the financial sector, banking giants HSBC and Barclays have declared their commitment, and others will surely follow. Governments have signed on as well: Norway announced it will become carbon neutral by 2050, and although it carefully avoids mentioning its North Sea oil and gas holdings, here is a nation making serious motions to go carbon free in the space of half a modern western lifetime. Even the U.K. Houses of Parliament in London are proposing to cut their profligate carbon use, possibly using tidal power from the adjacent Thames or wind turbines on the adjacent Parliament Green. Whether the historic buildings inspectors will be so accommodating is anyone’s guess.

Opportunities abound to reduce our environmental footprints. In “Campus Greening: Behind the Headlines,” Ann Rappaport documents how U.S. universities can save a lot of energy and materials costs through better housekeeping. She cites, among other campuses, that of Tufts University, which saves $90,000 annually in energy costs with more efficient building design and lighting.

Yet Rappaport also illustrates the many hurdles these efforts face. Even the best-designed buildings and energy sensors require some level of commitment and changes in behavior by their occupants. If there are no financial incentives or no means of creating a group moral value, then the requisite level of behavior change may not take place.

“Institutional greening,” then, is a management issue and a learning opportunity. Smart universities, such as Rutgers, build in a cost-management team that considers economic advantage as well as ways to shift the outlook on campus. Budgets are set on the basis of procurement practices that reduce long-term revenue spending, even though there may be higher initial costs. And research communities on campuses are seeking to generate revenue from reusing recycled materials and from models of carbon collecting and valuation. For example, Rutgers has developed a high-quality recycled plastic material strong enough to serve as a bridge crossing.

But the friction at the heart of the greening transformation remains: the need for a culture shift on campuses to move toward a collective sustainability action plan. One mechanism that has been proposed in the United Kingdom is for the Higher Education Funding Council (the central body responsible for funding all higher education campuses) to require a sustainability action plan before it sets its final budget for each campus. The relevant campuses can then pitch for funds to show that the whole final plan can be cost effective and progressively transformational for student behavior and also for on-campus research and learning.

However, there are many difficulties even to this seemingly sound proposal. Universities do not take kindly to being told what and how they should teach. Procurement is a treacherous exercise, since there are rules on how a publicly funded body can spend its revenue on buildings, food, or vending machines (in particular, annual budget spending arrangements militate against long-term savings associated with higher initial costs). Even noble efforts to enhance “sustainable” procurement are not working very well. There is simply too much inertia in the system. Nevertheless, the concept of a comprehensive sustainability action plan guiding all campus “greening” certainly does need to be explored.

In “A New Market Paradigm for Zero-Energy Homes: A Comparative Case Study," coauthors Barbara Farhar and Timothy Coburn attempt to dispel the notion that the “green home” market only involves the rich enhancing the rich. “Green homes” are more valuable if oil and gas prices rise, and once the market establishes itself, standards favoring energy efficiency and carbon leanness may become commonplace. However, this may take time to reach the poor living in inadequately ventilated and minimally insulated homes, and they may not have access to the necessary transition funds to help them upgrade to better energy usage. In the United Kingdom, grants to meet this need are being cut, just when the nation is embarking on a program of 60 percent CO2 reduction in 1990 levels by 2050.

But Farhar and Coburn show that better building standards can benefit the less well off. Community sustainability plans are being created explicitly to enable green housing to spread further at the local level, where people feel they are making a difference. And in the United Kingdom, there are exciting experiments for whole communities to cut their carbon footprints. Here is the beginning of sustainable communities in action—a much-needed transformation that, like a groundswell, starts small but builds momentum for change.
—Timothy O’Riordan

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