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May 12, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Why Victoria University should become carbon neutral

In order to overcome the challenge of climate change, significant institutional, technological and behavioural changes clearly need to occur. Universities are in an ideal position to act as model institutions, by taking a leadership role in demonstrating the types of changes that need to occur. A significant way of demonstrating this leadership would be by becoming carbon neutral.

Doing so would be beneficial for VUW in a number of ways. Gecko, Victoria University’s environment club, is currently campaigning to get VUW to commit to becoming carbon neutral. This follows on from a recycling campaign in 2004 that saw the university implement a recycling programme later that year and a campaign in 2005 that saw the university adopt an environmental policy in 2006. Students at the last VUWSA SGM overwhelmingly voted in favour of supporting VUW committing to carbon neutrality.

Becoming carbon neutral will involve a process of annually calculating the university’s greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint, which is the total amount of GHGs emitted from the university’s operations; reducing these GHG emissions where possible; and then balancing the remaining emissions that cannot be reduced, by purchasing carbon offsets, such as paying to plant trees or investing in green technologies.

Universities have an important role in society, at the forefront of not only climate science, but in all areas of higher education and research. They have played a leadership role throughout history in addressing important societal issues, such as civil rights, free speech and thinking, foreign policy, and in particular the anti-war movement.

This is a reflection of universities’ role as centres for intellectual inquiry, critical thinking and innovation. Pragmatically, any single institution’s environmental impact is limited; however, high profile institutions acting early outside government can demonstrate leadership for all of society. The way in which universities conduct their operations will serve as a role model to students and society in general. By leading the way, universities are able to direct society towards a more sustainable way of living.

On an ethical level, the case for such an organisation to act to mitigate climate change is strong. Firstly, universities are not restricted in the way that other public and private organisations are. They have less fiscal pressure than other large institutions and therefore have more independence and freedom to question and challenge major issues that face society, such as climate change. Secondly, universities are typically long-lived institutions and should therefore be concerned with the long-term health and liveability of their community and regions, having the expertise, leverage and resources to advance progress on mitigating climate change. Universities should lead society, not only because they are qualified for the role, but because they are the only institution with this ability to lead.

By committing to carbon neutrality, VUW would be the first university in the country to do so. Already, numerous universities around the world have already taken steps to reduce their impact on the climate. Over 500 universities and colleges in the United States of America have pledged a commitment to becoming carbon neutral. In the United Kingdom, several universities have signed up to the Carbon Trust, a government funded independent company that helps organisations reduce their climate impact.

VUW is a leading institution on climate research in New Zealand, playing host to the new interdisciplinary Climate Change Research Institute. Nonetheless, VUW still lags behind many international universities in the way it deals with its own GHG emissions. To research and teach climate science and policy, yet do nothing to deal with its own GHG emissions could be regarded as hypocritical. By following the lead of other universities around the world and making a commitment to carbon neutrality, VUW would be seen as walking the talk.

If VUW decides to embrace carbon neutrality, there are different ways in which this could be achieved. Firstly, it could become carbon neutral overnight, by simply purchasing offsets, such as planting trees, to counter balance the emissions produced from its operations. This could be costly and may see the university receive criticism for doing nothing to reduce GHG produced from its operations.

Alternatively, it could carefully design and implement strategies over a longer time frame, involving wide consultation with staff and students, to reduce emissions where possible and then purchase carefully considered offsetting initiatives to counterbalance emissions that cannot be reduced, without destroying its finances or operational ability. This process could take many years, but would be more cost effective in comparison to only purchasing offsets.

A carbon audit of VUW conducted in 2006 found the university’s total net emissions of around 17,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. The key contributors to this included air and land transport by both students and staff. CarboNZero – a carbon emissions management and certification programme developed by Landcare Research – can work with the university to cost effectively achieve carbon neutrality within the short term. This cost would reduce each year as effective emission reductions programmes were implemented. However, as it is inevitable that VUW will one day have to deal with its GHG emissions, if the university chooses to act on this later rather than sooner this cost would be far greater. Therefore, becoming carbon neutral should be seen as a cost saving exercise as opposed to an expense.

There may also be other benefits and opportunities created for VUW by becoming carbon neutral, such as marketing and branding opportunities, opportunities through voluntary activities with the avoidance of any future government regulation, leadership benefits and environmental benefits. These benefits could save the university considerable amounts of money. Oberlin College in the United States made a commitment to carbon neutrality in 2006 and predicts that this will be achieved in the next decade and would make the university money.

VUW should make the commitment to become carbon neutral. However, this decision lies with the Vice Chancellor and / or the University Council; though it is preferably the sort of strategic decision that the Council should make. Whether the University Council believes that the benefits and opportunities of becoming carbon neutral outweigh the short term costs associated with surmounting the barriers currently in place is the central question. However, these short term costs will be insignificant in comparison to the long terms costs that will occur if GHGs are not reduced in the near future.

If you would like to know more about this campaign, have any questions or would like to be involved, please contact Gecko at gecko. vic@gmail.com.

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  1. rational greenie says:

    ‘They have less fiscal pressure than other large institutions and therefore have more independence and freedom to question and challenge major issues that face society, such as climate change.’

    Seeing as the most likely place the university is going to get the money for purchasing carbon offsets, Tush, is from increasing the fees that students have to pay, I wonder if your protest is targetting the right sector.

    ‘Firstly, it could become carbon neutral overnight, by simply purchasing offsets, such as planting trees, to counter balance the emissions produced from its operations.’

    You need to do some research to figure out how much this would cost. It may even be helpful to do some research to find out how much this would cost per student.

    ‘These benefits could save the university considerable amounts of money.’

    It’s not likely. It is likely however that if VUW used it as a marketing platform and incorporated it into their university brand that they could encourage a wider range of students to enrol. I would agree that this is something worth approaching the University Council about.

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