Four steps to turn York University green

11 Dec 2012 @ 11.02 am
| Opinion

Outgoing vice chancellor Brian Cantor and Central Hall at York University. Photographs: York University and Arian Kriesch
The new boss of York University should turn it green. How? In his latest Green Piece column, Geoff Beacon has four suggestions



The University of York is to have a new vice chancellor. To their credit members of the York People and Planet Society are asking for the new vice chancellor to have real green credentials.

The national People and Planet Society website has a declaration that they want university vice chancellors to sign. It starts

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today. The education sector has a key role to play in addressing this challenge. Education is critical to achieving the transition to a low carbon economy and society.

I would say THE biggest challenge but their’s is a good start. Next it says

Teaching and learning are crucial to inspire and education the next generation of decision makers, business leaders and citizens, and equip them with the skills and knowledge to deal with the challenges of climate change.

Since this is aimed at vice chancellors of universities I groan. I can find little evidence that university staff (with a few exceptions) have much of a clue of the severity of climate change and how our every day life-styles are driving the changes.

The carbon footprint of food

Let me start with a simple example. Various academics have calculated the carbon footprint of beef. In this country Adrian Williams of Cranfield University did some work for the Department of Food and Rural Affairs.

The Green Ration Book used his work to calculate the carbon footprint of a large beef steak. The UK target for carbon dioxide emissions for 2050 is roughly 6kgs, so the Green Ration Book allocates a quarter of that for food making a ration of 1.5kgs of CO2e (carbon dioxide equavelent) per day.

The large beef steak has a footprint of 8.63 kgs of CO2e. That’s over five days of your carbon ration so you could (almost) keep within your carbon ration by eating a large beef steak every five days and nothing else.
NoBeef.org.uk suggests the Green Ration Book is underestimating beef’s carbon footprint. It also has an interesting report about Tesco’s carbon footprinting.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Ms Symonds adds that Tesco carefully picked for its initial labels products whose carbon footprints likely wouldn’t shock consumers. The retailer purposely avoided labeling the carbon footprint of beef, for instance, because beef’s carbon footprint is significantly higher than that of many other foods.

If Tesco had presented consumers “with a message that was so counterintuitive and difficult,” Ms Symonds says, “we might have found it difficult to take carbon labeling forward.”

Is anything taught in the University of York about the carbon footprint of the food we eat? If it is, I doubt the message reaches the mass of students.

VC challenge 1. Tell students about the carbon footprint of the food they eat. Display estimates of the carbon footprints of meals in the university canteens.

Foreign students

The university brings many foreign students to York – mostly very nice people. It’s pleasant to see York more cosmopolitan but – a big but – is the carbon footprint of the students’ travel.

Take as an example a return flight to Leeds from Beijing. There is some argument on the carbon footprint of air-travel but the Green Ration Book settled on a figure of 210 grammes of CO2e per passenger kilometre. That gives the Beijing-Leeds return flight a carbon footprint of 3423 kilograms, which is more than six years of a personal travel budget.

The Chinese student I knew best made this journey at least once a year.

VC challenge 2. Calculate and publish estimates of the carbon footprints of all students – not just overseas students – in their journeys to and from the university. Consider opening a Beijing campus.

Embodied carbon in buildings

The University of York has built many new buildings and in order to claim that their buildings are environmentally sustainable they say

The university is aiming to achieve a ‘Very Good’ BREEAM rating as a minimum for the buildings on Heslington East – BREEAM is the world’s most widely used environmental assessment method for buildings.

The trouble with BREEAM is that it does not measure the “embodied carbon” in new buildings. Perhaps the new vice chancellor should look at the comments in a report by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors that says about schemes for assessing the environmental stainability of buildings

the placing of bat and bird boxes on a building may gain more points under some assessment procedures than retaining the structural frame of a building, which may embody many tens of thousands of tonnes of carbon.

The new vice chancellor should ask if this comment applied to BREEAM. If the new vice chancellor really wanted to cut carbon footprints, BREEAM should be scrapped and a better method that measured embodied carbon should be used. My guess is that measurements would be damning.

VC challenge 3. Calculate and publish the embodied carbon of university buildings.

Tell the truth about climate

The new vice chancellor should get up to speed on the pace of climate change and listen to Kevin Anderson (pictured right):

Top scientists and government reports won’t tell you we are heading toward catastrophic climate change. Emissions are skidding out of control, leading us to a world six degrees Centigrade hotter on average, much faster than anyone thought possible. Why doesn’t the public know?

The vice chancellor should recognise that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is not a reliable source on climate change. Its predictions lag the real world and already its next report due in a couple of years (the AR5 report) is out-of-date because the climate models used for its predictions have missing feedbacks.

The vice chancellor should then be willing to confront the UK Government and the European Commission who are in denial.

VC challenge 4. Learn about the real pace of climate change and let your staff, your students and the world know.

I’m not holding my breath on any of these.

I predict another greenwash joke.