Universities claim to be innovative and to enable their students to help shape the world of tomorrow responsibly. By far the most important – as simply existential – challenge of this century will be the rapid and consistent anchoring of sustainability in all areas of life. Only in this way can we preserve the chance to limit the consequences of man-made climate change to a tolerable level and to stop the progressive environmental degradation. Universities, as key drivers of innovation in society, have a particularly important task and role model function to face this challenge.
But what makes up a “green university”? What significance does sustainability have in everyday student life, in university administration, teaching and research?
I have been a professor at a North German university of applied sciences for 15 years, including several years in various self-administration functions. During this time I got an impression of the areas in which the university does not yet think and act sustainably enough. And I had to learn that, due to the constraints of the public service, unfortunately not every problem can be solved as easily and unbureaucratically as one would like.
In the form of a checklist, this article outlines the most important fields of action on the way to a “green university”. The checklist is certainly not complete. If you have additional ideas or differing opinions on the issues mentioned, please leave a comment.
1. Convert energy supply
Today, electricity from renewable energy sources is hardly more expensive than electricity from fossil sources. Some federal states may still stipulate by law that in the public service, the most inexpensive offer must be awarded the contract. In such cases, the state governments are called upon to pave the way for a climate-neutral power supply for public buildings. This may be slightly more expensive than a conventional supply in the short term, but it will more than pay off in the long term.
In the case of heat supply using gas, the situation is different in that you actually have to pay a considerably higher charge for real biogas. “Real” means that the gas should be produced 100% regionally and ecologically from residual and waste materials. Factory farming and monocultures are taboo here. Many “green gas” offers on the market do not meet these criteria , but only offer conventional gas from fossil sources. This gas can only be called “eco” because the provider reduces the associated carbon emissions e.g. by purchasing emission certificates or by financing climate projects.
In my private life, I recently started getting 100% biogas with the green gas label , but for large organizations – especially in the public sector – the complete switch to this is unlikely to be financed at the moment. A gas tariff with 10% or 20% biogas would be a good start.
2. Save energy
The heating running at full power in the lecture room – and all the windows wide open? Laboratory computers that are running day and night? Unfortunately, I’ve seen that happen many times over the past few years, and these are just two examples out of many. Without the necessary ecological (and economic) awareness among all those involved, energy is wasted on a large scale at a university.
In times of digitalization, the energy consumption of data centers is of particular importance. “Green IT” is a topic in itself that goes far beyond pure electricity consumption. The strategic planning of data centers should not only be about the most cost-effective provision of IT services. The durability of hardware, its energy consumption, its pollutant emissions – during production and operation -, its recyclability and many other aspects must also be taken into account. (These criteria apply to the entire procurement system, also beyond IT.)
3. Minimize paper consumption
Even in 2019, studying at many German universities is still quite paper-heavy: lecture notes and project reports are still printed out too often. In some cases, teachers still expect students to submit their work in paper form, etc. So it’s no wonder that e.g. “my” university runs a popular in-house print shop. But is this really still up to date? Can’t teaching materials and other documents be read as well in digital form? With the appropriate software tools, it is just as possible to make notes on the margin as it used to be on paper. There are also advantages such as searchability and portability. Not to mention digital teaching formats such as MOOCs. Above all, it’s the difficult break with old habits that prevents us from consistently teaching and learning digitally.
In university administration, paper also prevails, yet: forms for business trips, vacation requests, etc. can be accessed electronically on the intranet and filled out on the computer. Ultimately, however, you have to print them out, sign them by hand and send them by internal mail. The receiving agency will manually re-enter a large part of the information into another IT system. In addition to the high paper consumption, the media breaks also have other disadvantages such as error-prone data entry and delays in the process. Digitizing standard workflows in the university’s intranet would help. Unfortunately, the universities (especially the smaller ones) often lack the money and the personnel for such digitization projects. Cross-university cooperation is therefore desirable.
We will certainly not get by entirely without paper in the future. When purchasing paper, we should therefore ensure that it is recycled and has been produced in an ecologically compatible manner. Of course, this costs money, but if you only have to procure a fraction of the previous amount of paper, it’s definitely worth it. And for sending paper documents by post, we should at least choose a carbon-neutral delivery service.
4. Avoid rubbish
Large amounts of paper (see previous section) inevitably lead to large amounts of paper waste. In this respect, consistently avoiding paper also means avoiding waste. Incidentally, this also applies to the various magazines that publishers regularly send box by box (and often unsolicited) to the universities: magazines such as Unicum and Audimax, plus career guides, newspapers from professional associations, etc. Most of them are displayed by the secretariats at information stands – and disposed again as soon as the new edition is delivered. Some even end up in the waste paper container unpacked, including the cardboard box. Here it is important to critically examine which magazines and newspapers are actually in demand and in what number, and to explicitly cancel everything else. After all, production and shipping also cause considerable costs for publishers and associations.
Eating and drinking
Another source of large amounts of waste at universities is catering. The so-called Studentenwerk responsible for “my” university, which operates the canteens and cafeterias, emphasizes on its website the claim to be sustainable and to avoid waste. For example, you can purchase reusable to-go cups made of bamboo fiber for a number of years now, while you have to pay some extra fee for drinks in disposable cups. A pilot project with a deposit system for reusable cups has recently been started. Sounds good, however: Ultimately, disposable cups made from non-renewable raw materials should be completely banned. Plastic boxes for salads and other cold snacks should also be taboo. The Studentenwerk replied to my inquiry that it is currently examining alternatives that are “sustainable and at the same time functional (handling, costs, hygiene regulations)”. I’m looking forward to it.
After all: the Studentenwerk tries to minimize food waste by preparing it “just in time”. Side dishes can be flexibly combined with the main course so that as little as possible remains on the plate. In the cleaning process, attempts are being made to mainly use concentrates and to switch from liquid to solid cleaners in order to minimize packaging waste.
5. Expand the range of vegan and vegetarian dishes
Food from factory farming is responsible for a significant proportion of global carbon emissions. It is therefore an active contribution to climate protection to minimize the consumption of animal products. “My” Studentenwerk emphasizes that it has already taken many measures in this direction: regional and seasonal foods, “Green Days” with predominantly vegetarian and vegan menus, eggs from alternative farming, organic seals.
However, when you visit the cafeteria, you always get the impression that there is still a lot to do: Meat dishes are often shockingly inexpensive. The selection of meat-containing dishes is, on average, larger than the selection of vegetarian / vegan alternatives. One “Green Day” a month is not enough. And in the cafeteria, the classic “Currywurst with French fries” still dominates – unfortunately this is also due to the high demand among students.
But at least: a lot has happened in recent years, and sales of vegetarian and vegan dishes are continuously increasing.
6. Promote public transport use
The topic of transport plays a major role for many universities, especially those on the outskirts or in small cities: Depending on the size of the university, several thousand students have to get to the campus every day – and back home in the evening. There are also hundreds of employees – teachers and administrative staff.
A good connection to local public transport is therefore essential for a “green university” in order to avoid long commutes by car and parking chaos on campus.
Many universities and the responsible student services offer semester tickets with which students can use public transport at no additional cost. At “my” university, the semester ticket is included in the semester fee, but it is essentially only valid for city traffic, which is insufficient. But improvement is in sight: After negotiations between the general student committees (AStA) of the universities with the federal state and the transport companies, there will be a semester ticket from the end of 2019 with which students can use buses and trains statewide (including Hamburg).
In cases of inadequate public transport, the university should actively support the organization of car pools. In addition, the provision of sufficient dormitory spaces near the campus is also an important contribution to minimizing car traffic.
An often neglected issue in the context of “universities and transport” refers to business trips: Of course, the exchange with other research institutions, companies and cooperation partners is extremely important. Nevertheless, the necessity of individual business trips should be critically examined. So e. g. video conferences can be a resource-saving alternative to conventional meetings.
If business trips are required, they should preferably be carried out by train and not by car or even by plane. Unfortunately, this is particularly difficult with international collaborations and exchange programs. For example, “my” university operates joint study programs with universities in the USA and China. Long-haul flights are therefore inevitable here. At least we should think about offsetting the associated carbon emissions. However, I am not sure whether the legal requirements allow the civil service to make such compensation payments.
7. Embed sustainability in the curriculum
The issues mentioned above all relate to everyday university life and university operations. In addition, the topics of sustainability, climate crisis and environmental protection should be included in the curricula of the degree programs more than before. As Barack Obama said in 2014: “We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it. “ Therefore, universities have a responsibility not only to raise awareness among their students, but also to enable them to act sustainably as a matter of course – privately and professionally.
Sustainability and climate protection are cross-cutting issues that affect everyone. In order to reach as many students as possible, interdisciplinary elective modules that are open to all study programs are recommended. Depending on the profile of the university, the introduction of specializations or even study programs on sustainability can also be considered.
8. Networking and Communication
With such complex challenges, it is always good to exchange ideas with others, get suggestions from outside and establish cooperations. Furthermore, it makes sense to have your own successes certified in order to be able to use them in public relations. The awarding of prizes for particularly promising sustainability projects is also recommended.
There are already various networks and initiatives on the subject of “green universities”, of which I would like to mention four:
- Hoch-N-Netzwerk: “Sustainability at universities: develop – network – report “- a project by the University of Hamburg, in which many universities across Germany are already participating.
- nachhaltige-hochschulen.de: A joint project of several student associations, establishing an “Initiative for sustainability and ethics at universities”.
- Fairtrade Universities: A university must meet five criteria to be a “Fairtrade University”. In addition to offering Fairtrade products, this also includes organizational anchoring and the regular implementation of fair trade events.
- EMAS: Stands for “Eco-Management and Audit Scheme”, also known as “EU eco-audit”. Organizations of all kinds (not just universities) can obtain a certificate confirming that they are continuously improving their measures for sustainability and environmental protection.
There are many fields of action on the way to becoming a “green university”. Of course, not all of these can be implemented immediately and extensively. There is simply a lack of human and financial resources. In individual cases, it may happen that the proposed measures contradict the short-term interests of the university or individual university members. But anyway: In the medium term, there is no alternative to the goal of a climate-neutral, sustainable university, and there will be exciting discussions along the way.
Even if you don’t study or work at a university yourself: think about the extent to which your employer acts sustainably. If you have ideas about what could be improved, contact your manager or use another means of participation. We, for example, have a so-called wish box in which we can enter criticism and suggestions for improvement – also anonymously.
I have just made an appointment with my university management to talk about the issues addressed in this article. Afterwards, I will inform you about the results.
The university management has shown itself to be very open to my suggestions. Of course, changes are not to be expected overnight.
In autumn 2020, my university took the position of a climate protection manager advertised and now also filled. After all, we now have a person on board who is working full-time on how to become a green university. Definitely a good basis for progress.