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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2010

Campus Carbon Footprint Can’t Be Ignored

By Penni Stewart
The Copenhagen climate summit in December resulted in a worldwide sense of disappointment. For Canadians, there was shame at our government’s role in undermining any meaningful agreement. Although there was no consensus on anything, the summit left a renewed sense of urgency to deal with the growing evidence of environmental devastation wreaked by the changing climate.

Educators have played a critical role in promoting environmental awareness through teaching and research projects. Despite funding shortfalls and the Conservative government’s attempt to steer the direction of research, there is no shortage of innovative environmental research programs in Canada. Some university and college presidents have also committed their institutions, via public international declarations, to reduce their institutions’ carbon emissions. Now it’s time for academic staff associations to address the environmental challenges at our institutions.

Our workplaces are part of the problem. Hundreds of thousands of people commute to university
and college campuses each day. They eat, sleep, work and study in facilities that are lighted and heated or cooled whether or not they are in use, set on extensive grounds that are regularly groomed, equipped with parking lots and roadways that require regular maintenance, and generating mountains of waste from food and residence services.

In a paper titled “Climate change a trade union responsibility in higher education,” presented in 2007 at a conference hosted by Education International, Brian Eve­rett and Rob Copeland of the University & College Union (UK) call for academics to take action on climate change as professionals and as union members. Greening the curriculums is only one step. They point out that our teaching calendars are not environmentally friendly. In Canada and most northern countries, summers have traditionally been valued as research time for academic staff and work time for students.

While most institutions have some summer teaching, even on the busiest campus, buildings are half empty in summer, although they are cooled and lighted. Environmentally, it may make more sense to intensify summer use of buildings and reduce winter use when heating and lighting needs are at their peak.

Many of us commute long distances to work and our institutions devote substantial acreage to parking. But it is not only cars that leave a carbon footprint. My workplace is a huge transit hub where hundreds of buses arrive and leave each day. Innovative solutions might include encouraging academic staff to work more often from home and helping with aspects of the transitioning from the campus workplace to working from home. On-campus housing, down payment assistance loans or other mortgage and housing-related benefits might, in some locales, encourage academic staff to locate closer to their workplace.

There are inevitable tradeoffs between environmental and other concerns. Cash-strapped institutions see increased recruitment of international students as one way to ease their budget crises. The carbon footprint of travel for such students is enormous. Everett and Copeland argue that building educational capacity in students’ home countries would be more positive environmentally, and in many cases politically.

Travel for research and to conferences, traditionally a large part of professional life for academics, poses another dilemma. Here, new communication technologies like teleconferencing may provide some solutions. Shifting conference schedules to longer cycles also makes sense.

Our partners in the International Labour Organization and Education International have called on unions in every sector to make climate change a priority issue. EI has called on all its members to not only “speak out strongly for urgent action,” but also to find ways to negotiate emission reductions with employers.

The University and College Union in the UK has taken up this challenge. In 2007, it set out to develop an environmental network, with at least one representative at every member branch. The idea was to start small and local and then spiral outwards. A crucial first step was providing training to the reps, who in turn would provide advice to bargaining committees and joint management-labour committees on carbon emission and other environmental issues.

These first steps have been fruitful. One outcome is the innovative Climate Solidarity project, undertaken by several unions, which seeks to mobilize climate change activism on a wide scale through local orga­nizing. Last fall UCU capped these efforts with a “climate solidarity” conference.

What is exciting about UCU’s model for climate change engagement is that the strategy draws on existing networks of health and safety representatives. In Canada, we could use health and safety committees or stewards’ networks to get started. Organizing around environmental issues has the potential to become a source of potent renewal for our associations.

The urgency of climate change means we can no longer leave the job of addressing environmental concerns to “specialist” organizations or various levels of government. Every institution must be mobilized. As academic staff we need to ensure that our associations play a decisive role in helping the campus community to live more sustainably and in finding solutions to the problems posed by the environment and climate change. Our primary means of ensuring such a role remains collective bargaining and identifying potential bargaining issues related to climate change. Associations must also examine their own way of operating weighted against environmental impact.

Finally, as Everett and Copeland remind us, associations must be vigilant in protecting the rights and academic freedom of members who become vulnerable as a result of exposing institutionally-caused environmental harms.