Campus action: UK students turn green

The Go Green campaign wants to see higher education take a tough stance on climate change and adopt tighter environmental standards. Emma Hughes reports on the campus fight against global warming.

A strange phenomenon is occurring across Britain’s universities and colleges: campuses are suddenly turning green. Green banners can be seen flying from buildings and students are holding protests. At Warwick University, students even unveiled a banner of the vice-chancellor with his hair dyed green!

It’s all part of the Go Green campaign, organised by People & Planet, the UK’s largest student network campaigning on environmental and ethical issues. They have groups in around 55 universities and colleges, most of which are organising a Go Green campaign.

I am a member of the People & Planet group at Cardiff University in Wales, where we have been running the campaign for two years. It has been one of the most rewarding and exciting campaigns to work for, but it has also been one of the most frustrating and challenging! The campaign is ambitious: we hope to achieve nothing short of a radical overhaul of the UK higher education sector’s environmental performance. The sector as whole consumes energy equal to 3 million tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere every year; it has 2 million students and owns 9% of the UK’s office space. I got involved because I wanted my university to be as green as possible – and I didn’t want my time in education to harm the world I live in. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only student at Cardiff who felt that way.

In the UK, climate change has finally been recognised by the media as a very real threat, and people are beginning to understand that now is the time for action. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the burning of coal, oil and gas has increased the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere 30% above normal levels, and as a consequence, the Earth is warming faster than at any time in the past 10,000 years. The effects of this dramatic rise are already being felt. The World Health Organisation reports that 150,000 people now die every year because of climate change, and the UN tells us that the economic costs of global warming will double every decade. Experts warn that by the end of the century, rising sea levels and crop failures could create 150 million refugees. I don’t want my education contributing to that, and that’s why I got involved with the Go Green campaign; it seemed a great way to make a local difference to a global problem.

Go Green has four main demands:

1. The active support of senior management. Within the British university system this means targeting the vice-chancellor or principal, as their support for a particular initiative will make it a priority for all members of staff. Protecting the environment is so important that leadership on this issue should come from the top.

2. The institution should employ a full-time member of staff dedicated to environmental management. Their role is to develop objectives, set priorities and targets of when they should be fulfilled by. This is probably the single most important demand: without a member of staff, university greening projects rarely have a chance of success. Unfortunately, it is also often the demand to which vice-chancellors object; whether they agree or not is generally a test of how deep their commitment to the environment really is.

3. A written, publicly available environmental policy should be produced. This is the foundation on which good, long-term environmental management is built. The policy should contain objectives and targets, and these should be met and monitored.

4. A comprehensive environmental review should be held. This is conducted to determine an institution’s current environmental impact. It answers questions about the impact an institution has on the environment and what can be done to improve it.

One of the most important things about the Go Green campaign is that all four points must be implemented together; it will not work to implement three out of the four demands.

Go Green at Cardiff University has been running for almost two years now, and we have had some great successes in that time. But we also hit a plethora of problems and obstacles – campaigning can be an infuriating process at times! An important first step in the campaign was to ensure everyone in the campaign understood why the four demands were so important, since at first they seemed abstract and non-specific; our group was used to campaigning on single issues like recycling and shared car schemes. The previous year we ran a successful renewable energy campaign and persuaded the university to switch to 100% green electricity. But we realised that Go Green would enable us to achieve all these things and much, much more. Instead of campaigning every time we wanted something changed, we could make sure our university had the resources to green itself. If we were to achieve our goals, the university would be left with a legacy of improved environmental performance: once the structures of good environmental management are in place, they are unlikely to be dismantled.

We then started spreading the word about Go Green. For two weeks we dressed up in green, held “green” club nights at the students’ union, attempted (unsuccessfully!) to turn the university spotlights green and collected as many signatures as possible for our petition. A fortnight later, 2,500 signatures had been collected, articles had appeared in the student newspaper and almost everyone seemed to be wearing our Go Green ribbons. We thought the university had to listen.

But they didn’t. The vice-chancellor ignored our requests for a meeting, and sent us to numerous public relations spokespeople. The students’ union did not support our campaign and the student newspaper soon ignored it. Disappointed, we finished the year with a sense of despondency. How were we supposed to get our demands heard? Students clearly supported the campaign yet those in power were not interested. A new approach was called for…

With the New Year came new strategies. We held another Go Green fortnight and collected 3,500 signatures. We also made sure the university was aware of the importance of our campaign: we lobbied the union president, which led to the student council passing a motion that formally committed the union in support of the campaign. Members of the campaign spoke to the editor of our student newspaper and explained the campaign’s importance. In the end, the paper ran several supportive articles, including a front-page story. We produced a regular environmental programme on the student radio, which gave us the space to discuss Go Green – and lots of other environmental issues. People engaged the university staff, searching for supportive members and explaining the campaign to them. Campaigners also conducted some laborious detective work: the university keeps information on its environmental performance remarkably well hidden, but it was necessary to hold the university to account. Without accurate facts and figures, the university could have given us the impression they were doing much more than they really were.

The year ended with relative success. We had a meeting with the vice-chancellor, and although he did not commit to the four principles of the campaign, things have started to improve on campus. Each department now has an “eco-champion”, whose responsibility it is to look for ways to green their faculties; the university has also signed up to the Carbon Trust’s Higher Education Management scheme. We hope these will lead to the establishment of significant and binding targets.

And we certainly intend to keep up the pressure. We will be getting a new intake of students involved, asking local celebrities to write letters of support and trying to get the Cardiff city council on board. Go Green is a very challenging campaign to take on; individual groups have to be prepared to take the initiative and think on their feet. While some groups have achieved success early on, Cardiff’s experience shows that progress can be slow, but sticking with it can achieve results. Students have the power to make a difference, but you need to be determined: universities won’t be greened in a day!

Homepage photo by Naufragio

Emma Hughes is a research associate in the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.