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College students around the world are taking steps to reverse climate change.

Two years ago, at the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, 193 member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals—17 distinct goals designed to eradicate poverty, address climate change, and build peaceful, inclusive societies for all by 2030. With the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Agreement and the recent record-breaking hurricane damage this year, climate change and sustainability will be a hot topic this week at the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly.

In July this year, the UN issued a report noting that progress to date “is insufficient to fully meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets by 2030.” It also added a warning: “Time is therefore of the essence.” The report went on to note that in 2016, planetary warming set a record temperature of about 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period, and the extent of global sea ice fell to the second lowest on record.

But it is not all doom and gloom. While the world is certainly heating up, so are the efforts taking place at university campuses to tackle climate change and make the world more sustainable. If you want to see the progress on reversing climate change and making the world more sustainable, look at our universities where sustainability advancements are made every day.

In this article, we highlight the key areas in which universities are leading the battle to reverse climate change—from their unwavering commitment, to the cutting-edge research that will help us win this battle.

Commitment by Universities to Meet SDGs

“There is no ‘Plan B’ because we do not have a ‘Planet B’” is an oft-repeated statement by Ban Ki-moon, the eighth UN Secretary-General. This is the view held by many leaders at university campuses around the world today.

Two decades ago, the title of “Campus Sustainability Officer” or “Director of Sustainability,” was unheard of. That’s not the case today when practically every university has one. Some universities have full departments, and many have full-on degree programs around sustainability. So, it was no surprise that when President Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a large group of university leaders in the U.S. promptly signed a “We Are Still In” proclamation.

This is what Susan Herbst, president of the University of Connecticut, had to say about the role of universities in this fight. “The decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement does not mean that we as a university should abdicate our own responsibility to do what we believe is best for our state, the nation, and the world with respect to our environment,” she said. “We will steadfastly continue to do our part in contributing to global efforts to address climate change.”

Separately, some universities also got together to affirm their intention to stand by the Paris Agreement. Johns Hopkins, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, MIT, Penn, Stanford, and Yale signed a separate pact to strengthen their resolve to limit carbon emissions.

A statement signed by the presidents of all 12 universities listed above reads: “As institutions of higher education, we remain committed to a broad-based global agreement on climate change and will do our part to ensure the United States can meet its contribution.”

Universities pledging to help tackle climate change is not a recent phenomenon. Hundreds of universities had previously committed to using only 100 percent renewable energy on campus and became signatories to the Climate Leadership Commitment, which was spearheaded by Environment America andthe Student Public Interest Research Groups to achieve carbon neutrality.

Sustainable Infrastructure

Universities around the world are making sustainable energy a priority in their campus infrastructure, so new projects are almost always being built with sustainability in mind. These environmental initiatives are reducing energy costs, countering carbon emissions, and making a visible commitment to sustainability evident to all.

Here are some recent examples of sustainable infrastructure:

  • As part of its $19.6 million project to become energy self-sufficient, Eastern Michigan University(EMU) recently installed an energy-efficient turbine to its heating plant, making EMU practically self-sufficient in production of heat and electricity on campus. EMU expects that the unit will result in reducing annual campus CO2 emissions by an estimated 21,305 tons and nitrogen oxides by 112 tons. Environmentalism is a priority at EMU, which will continue its efforts to fight for environmental sustainability. “We are always on the lookout for opportunities which present themselves to improve operational efficiencies and to make EMU even ‘Greener’,” said Bilal Sarsour, director of facilities maintenance at EMU.
  • Rhode Island College (RIC) has converted all of its dormitories to LED lighting (saving 517,308 kilowatt hours) and installed street lamps topped with solar panels and a wind turbine. During the day, the lamps convert sunlight and wind into electricity, which is then stored in the individual lamps’ batteries. During the night, the lamps illuminate the campus, powered entirely by the energy they stored up during the day. “The OMNI LED system is a perfect example of Rhode Island College’s commitment to sustainability, using new and groundbreaking technology in a very practical way,” James Murphy, sustainability coordinator at RIC, said.
  • University of Illinois is reaping the benefit of student-funded solar farm consisting of 18,867 photovoltaic panels, which are projected to generate energy for the next 40 years. “The Solar Farm was the fifth major completed solar energy project on campus and first utility-scale installation,” said Morgan Johnston, director of sustainability for the university’s Facilities & Services. Campus sustainability efforts don’t stop there. “The next step in our move toward clean energy is the new ten-year Wind Power Purchase Agreement the university signed with Rail Splitter Wind Farm, LLC.,” she added. “Also, the university is continuing to incorporate building-specific solar installations into projects for research facilities and residence halls as part of major renovations or new construction.”
  • Essex Business School, located at the University of Essex in Colchester, UK, recently opened its first zero-carbon school building in the UK. The focus of the building is a winter garden with an “Eden-like dome” that gives the building its own micro-climate. The building has a rainwater pond that recycles water for use in plumbing. The building is so energy-efficient that it saves more than one ton of carbon every day.
  • Okanagan College has installed the second largest solar panel system in British Columbia, Canada. As a result, Okanagan College has been able to reduce its energy consumption per square meter by 32.2 percent from 2007 to 2013. The college has set a goal of being energy net zero by 2025.

These are just a few of the many examples of the recent sustainable infrastructure projects at different campuses. The switch to 100 percent renewable energy is really taking off and not a moment too soon, with universities playing a key role in addressing “our largest environmental challenges,” according to Bronte Payne, Environment America’s Clean Energy Associate, in a recent interview with TUN.  “Now, more than ever, we need leadership,” she added. “Which is why we are counting on the higher education community to lead, by committing to a rapid shift to clean energy.”

Campus Recycling

A big part of reversing climate change is recycling. The more we recycle, the less energy is consumed in making new things that contribute directly to climate change. This is an area where universities have made dramatic changes and continue to improve upon, so much so that it would behoove local governments to learn from local universities around them how best to improve their own programs.

Here are some examples of recycling efforts made by universities:

  • Making Recycling a Competitive Sport.  “RecycleMania” is a green movement that started in 2001, whereby colleges compete against each other in an effort to promote recycling and waste reduction. During the competition, the participating schools report on their weekly recycling/trash volumes, and are ranked in various categories based on their recycling efforts. Since RecycleMania’s inception, millions of students from over 1,000 universities have recycled and composted roughly 730 million pounds of material, thereby preventing the release of nearly 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (equivalent to removing 7 million cars from the road for one year).
  • Results Happen Quickly.  Unity College, which prides itself on being America’s Environmental College, was recently able to demonstrate how fast results can occur with a focused effort. The college’s efforts to have zero waste in its dining and catering facilities were recently rewarded by the National Association of College and University Food Services. Unity College was able to achieve remarkable results in just 8 months, which highlights how quickly organizations can make a difference if they just put their minds to it. “The students, staff, and faculty at Unity College are eager to make a real, positive impact on their world, and I am proud that our Sustainability Team constantly looks for new ways to help our campus community minimize waste,” said Jennifer deHart, chief sustainability officer at Unity College.
  • Personal Environmental Scorecard. Penn State University’s largest campus, University Park, implemented the “PawPrint,” a tool for students to measure their ecological footprint, so they can make better sustainability choices each day. Professor Andrew Lau, who conceived the project, said: “The PawPrint takes the concept of sustainability and shows students how they are doing and what’s possible.” “The PawPrint helps students answer the question: How sustainable is my current way of life?” he added.
  • College Stadiums are Recycling Showcases. Most college stadiums are now on the path to zero waste. For example, Penn State University’s Beaver Stadium, the second largest university stadium in the U.S., partnered with Green Sports Alliance and NatureWorks to make a portion of Beaver Stadium a “zero waste showcase.” The initiative resulted in 95 percent diversion of landfill waste at the first home game in 2013 and 100 percent diversion by the last game. Diversion in 2014 was also 100 percent at each game.   This and similar initiatives are a great way to show a large audience how “zero waste” can be achieved.
  • Moving Day Recycling.  Many universities now have robust move-in/move-out recycling programs.The average university student discards 640 pounds of waste annually, with the bulk of the waste generated during move-out. Two decades ago, most of that would have ended up in a landfill. Fortunately, many universities and their students are making a concerted effort to divert that waste from the landfills. For example, Georgia Tech has had an annual Move-In/Move-Out program in place since 1998.   It now prides itself on keeping 13,000 tons of recyclable material out of the landfills each year.
  • One Man’s trash is Another Man’s Treasure. Temple University recently implemented the Temple Surplus, a program that functions essentially as a central platform for collecting and redistributing all types of equipment, such as office chairs, tables, chairs, shelving, and filing cabinets. Any item that is not recycled for university use is either sold or donated. “Temple’s surplus program is a win-win-win,” said Kathleen Grady, Temple’s director of sustainability. “The university is able to promote reuse, reduce waste and the associated hauling costs, and generate revenue to help keep Temple affordable and accessible for our students.”

But not all of the university recycling efforts flow top-down. Many of the best programs have resulted from individual students who had their individual “ah ha” moment. For example, when Hannah DePorter, a juniorat University of Wisconsin, was visiting the agriculture research stations run by the university, she noticed that some produce was being wasted even though extra produce was donated to food banks. So what did she do?  She started a Foodshed program at four different locations on campus, so students and faculty can have free local produce and vegetables, which otherwise would have been wasted.

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