how-can-we-reduce-the-carbon-footprint-of-universities
By Matt Maynard

How can we reduce the carbon footprint of universities?

July 22, 2019

How many millions of people travel each day to attend their lectures? How much accommodation is built yearly to house the influx of students? And how many physical sources are going to be needed due to the demand for university courses?

We’re not eco-warriors, and we’re not here to tell you to cycle to work, live in a teepee or read all your books on a device many of you already own with the Kortext reader app in order to save the planet (…wait…).

But the climate of environmental politics is hotter than ever, and everyone knows something needs to change, but the truth is, what can we do?

The impact of university halls

How many fossil fuels do you think are wasted powering university accommodation? With so many care-free youngsters cooking every day, leaving lights on, showering numerous times and letting hot air seep through opened windows, we don’t even want to tell you. But we’re going to, anyway.

The University of Cambridge kindly gave an insight into their energy consumption during the academic year of 2017/2018. In terms of electricity, Cambridge revealed it used the same amount of energy as 36,614 homes or 78% of Cambridge’s domestic electricity demand. The biggest use of electricity? Their data centre. And for gas? The equivalent of 7,476 residences in the local area, which is quite astonishing considering most things in modern university halls are powered by electricity.

If we take this as a UK university average, the anthropogeny of higher education institutions is potentially cataclysmic, yet so easily solvable.

So, what can be done to make campuses more sustainable?

Invest in solar energy

Installing solar panels in order to generate an abundance of renewable energy is at the forefront of any sustainable campus, and with prices plummeting and rooves left bare, there aren’t any obstacles to overcome.

But surely sunlight can’t power everything?

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the United States has the potential to meet all its power needs 100 times over just by using the Sun. Experts have predicted that by installing solar panels on the rooftops across America, 40% of all electricity needs could be met. Just think of how much renewable energy the UK could harness using solar panels if this is the case for the US.

Innovating data centres

Data centres house all the technical data of your computers, smartphones and other devices. Where did you think your essays on Google Cloud were stored, in thin air? And as the technology around us advances at an alarming rate, our data centres have to keep up, but the impact they’re having on our carbon footprint isn’t up for debate.

There’s not really a simple solution, either. These data centres require as much electricity as it takes to power a medium-sized town, but they have to exist or our online existence becomes extinct. So how can we combat this issue?

Renewable energy is the obvious solution. As a matter of fact, Apple has the largest solar installation which powers almost 100% of its energy for its data centres. Facebook’s data centre also uses renewable energy in the form of wind to power its computers. So it is very much doable.

The computers used within the data centres run all day long, which not only means they use an excessive amount of energy, but extra fossil fuels are being burnt to prevent them from overheating. To oppose this, Google is using seawater to cool their data centre in Finland, while also using rainwater they capture to serve the same purpose.

They’re all easy solutions and it doesn’t take the brightest minds to come up with them. But what’s important is that they’re being done and done well, all with the future of our planet in mind.

Incentivise online degrees

With the increase of student numbers, university energy-usage is going to hit an all-time high, hence, there’s no better time to emphasise the online learning pathway.

Sure, online degrees exist but rarely do students go fishing for them. What if our favourite universities gave us the opportunity to enrol in the course we wanted but from a distance, and at a discount? It’s a solution to the predicted student numbers in the years to come, meaning no further fossil fuels and unrenewable materials need to be used in the construction of additional facilities and accommodation.

Apart from the occasional face-to-face contact, distance-learning students will rarely pay their campus a visit because of what’s available online. Learning Management Systems (LMS) allow them to stay up to date with assignments and facilitate peer and lecturer contact via IMS-type forums. Personal learning platforms, such as ours, are home to thousands of eBooks and other academic sources and are widely available online, eliminating the need to visit a library for a book that might already be in the possession of a fellow student.

Online degrees alone aren’t going to reduce the carbon footprint of universities. The truth is, there is no sole solution, only an amalgamation of ideas will help campuses become clean and green. We’re already seeing significant changes throughout the world, and for the sake of sustainability, let’s hope we continue to do so.

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