Ladies and gentlemen, start your hybrids.
The student group Richmond Environmental Network for Economic Willpower sponsored the first Environmental Awareness Week on the University of Richmond campus last week, culminating with an open meeting Tuesday afternoon at the forum where university President Edward L. Ayers signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).
The commitment, which has already been signed by hundreds of university presidents nationwide, commits an institution to develop a comprehensive plan to reach climate neutrality as soon as possible, and to practice a series of greenhouse gas-reducing behaviors while long-term plans are being developed. It also requires the institution to make its action plan, inventory and periodic progress reports publicly available by sending them to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) for posting and dissemination, according to the ACUPCC Web site.
Senior Jason Levinn, founder of RENEW, said institutions of higher education have a duty to practice environmentalism as part of being leaders in the local community.
"As an institution of higher education, we have the resources and the know-how to be conscious and proactive about the problems in the world," Levinn said. "Environmental issues are talked about all over campus and solutions are taught in the classroom, but before now we have not been practicing what we teach as a university."
The Presidents Climate Commitment presents an opportunity for Richmond to achieve these ends as well as a sustainable future, Levinn said, and the members of RENEW are excited to act closely with the administration in making Richmond more environmentally friendly. He also said that Ayers' attitude at Tuesday's meeting indicated that this was not something the president agreed to do merely because he felt compelled.
"Lots of presidents at other universities have been signing [the PCC] to quiet the students," he said. "That's not the kind of president [Ayers] is. He thinks critically about every decision he makes."
During Environmental Awareness Week, members of RENEW asked students and faculty to sign a petition urging President Ayers to sign the PCC. On Tuesday afternoon, a small crowd of RENEW members and other students and faculty gathered at the forum despite light rainfall to see Ayers address the university community publicly and to hear his decision.
After briefly announcing he had signed the PCC, Ayers pointed to several changes the university had already made that have put Richmond on a greener track, including the new laundry machines installed during the summer that he said would save one million gallons of water every year. He also noted the use of biodiesel in campus transportation equipment, the construction of LEED-certified buildings around campus and a plan to switch to a new, more efficient heating system in the apartments.
But Ayers said changes made by the university could not alone make the campus reach its environmental goals, and student actions would need to change on the micro level in order for the impacts to be seen on the macro level.
"The institutional efforts don't mean much without the individual efforts of all of us," he said, adding that students need to stop several wasteful behaviors, such as choosing to drive across campus instead of walking, leaving computers running when not in use and buying bottles of water instead of drinking from a tap.
Ayers challenged the students living on campus to make an immediate change in their behaviors. He said the University Forest Apartments used 200,000 kilowatts of energy during October, and challenged apartment residents to cut that number in half. He also challenged residents of the dormitories, who he said were the weakest part of the campus recycling efforts, to use the appropriate garbage and recycling bins when throwing out trash.
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Ayers said there was no set plan in the near future to replace the coal-powered heating system on campus, but Levinn said there were ways to combat its emissions. The preferred method, according to Levinn, would be to use a solar hot water heater instead of the one currently used in the basement of the facilities building. The university could also buy energy credits to offset the emissions, though Levinn said this should be regarded as a last resort.
Gaining student support for the PCC was very important because students and many members of society are insulated in their daily lives from the damage they are causing on the environment and ecosystems around the world, said Geoff Cox, a senior member of RENEW.
"It is hard for people to really understand the reality of global warming when they can't physically perceive it," Cox said. "It is too abstract or intangible, and the best way to make it feel real is through continued awareness." Cox said the PCC was part of a nationwide effort to cut total carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 in order to avoid the worst effects of global warming.
Some students were hesitant to sign the petition, wondering whether the shift to more environmentally friendly practices would cause an increase in tuition.
"I think it is important to consider the amount of resources, whether they are monetary or simply personal commitment," said junior Amy Saucier. "I don't mind that The Cellar tacks on an extra 50 cents to to-go orders for environmentally friendly boxes, but I am going to mind if the tuition cost goes up several thousand dollars in this project's future in order to make a difference."
But according to representatives at AASHE, tuition increases have not been a concern of those at colleges and universities nationwide who have committed to the PCC. Andrea Webster, the membership coordinator of AASHE, said the group had not received complaints about financial burdens resulting from environmentally friendly behaviors.
"We haven't really experienced many criticisms about costs or really any criticisms in general," she said. "It seems that there are a lot of colleges and universities anxious to get on board with these plans." Webster said the PCC might actually make environmental efforts more affordable for colleges and universities. She said the Clinton Climate Initiative had recently discussed ways to offer funding to universities who make the commitment.
RENEW members said while the ultimate goal of Environmental Awareness Week was to have Ayers sign the PCC, they also wanted to encourage students to adopt more environmentally friendly habits.
Senior Christie Howe organized the week's activities, which began with a waste survey at the Heilman Dining Center last Monday. Different RENEW members collected leftover solid food from student trays that would have otherwise been thrown away. In one day, Howe said the group collected 1,760 pounds of solid food waste, which Levinn said amounts to more than 300,000 meals during one year.
RENEW also sponsored a week-long apartment energy conservation competition. After taking measurements from digital readouts on the back of apartments throughout the week, Howe said the 1600 block won the competition, and the residents of those apartments would receive a prize for their conservation efforts. Howe and Cox said the group headed a joint table in the Tyler Haynes Commons with members of the Sierra Club for three days distributing items such as Nalgene water bottles and compact fluorescent light bulbs.
Levinn and Cox said the week went very well, especially with Ayers signing the PCC on Tuesday. Howe said she hoped the event was not just a one-week wonder.
"I thought the week went really well, especially since it was the first time," she said. "I hope that this becomes an annual tradition that continues after I leave"
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