Rona MacNicol takes a frank look at Glasgow University's sustainability
Nearly four years ago, in October 2014, Glasgow University made headlines as the first European university to divest from the fossil fuel industry. The University would reallocate around £18m of current investments in the fossil fuel industry over over a ten year period and their move encouraged other institutions to follow suit. No mean feat. Indeed, in terms of sustainability, the University has continued to introduce a plethora of policies which show a commitment to sustainable practice. Waste management, water management, active travel, carbon emissions, energy consumption, the list goes on and on...
...And so it should. As the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges puts it: “universities have a unique and powerful opportunity to combine their campuses, teaching, leadership and research into a potent responsibility to drive change”. The environmental impact of academic institutions’ consumption, waste exportation and emissions extends well beyond the campus itself, meaning universities have a rather sizeable ecological footprint. The potential harm caused to the environment by higher education institutions means that every activity and policy of Glasgow University requires rigorous scrutiny through a lens of sustainability, in order to reduce the impact this institution has on the local and global environment.
Unfortunately, the University’s current strategy seems to bypass certain unsustainable activities. Think back to every September you’ve spent at Glasgow University. There’s one thing that remains a certainty year after year: the pavements and pathways of University Avenue, and the neighbouring side streets will become entirely eclipsed by a thick layer of paper flyers designed to capture the attention of both new and returning students. Beyond the obvious marketing efforts of these bars, restaurants and nightclubs, there’s something else about this mess which is captivating. Aside from the fact that it’s probably not aesthetically pleasing or considerate of the local residents, the sheer volume of waste openly scattered on university property arguably discredits the institution’s image as environmentally sustainable.
True, the mass outpouring of flyers onto the streets of Hillhead isn’t directly the fault of Glasgow University. Nevertheless, the University could take greater responsibility for this, if it so desired.
Regardless of whether the paper they’re printed on is recyclable, as soon as these hundreds of flyers hit the ground, it is highly likely they won’t make it into those dry mixed recycling bins that Glasgow has so proudly invested in.
Small yet significant examples of environmental disregard can be found elsewhere on campus too. The library is lit in many sections where there is an abundance of natural light and the air conditioning seems to be switched on permanently, sometimes rendering the space uncomfortably cold. Further, the energy ratings of the older buildings are sky-high and some academic subjects have an obligatory paper copy submission, despite there being an online submission and feedback system already in place.
It may appear petty to criticise seemingly small flaws in Glasgow’s sustainability policy, but for the institution to overlook some behaviours and practises which could be potentially harmful to the environment is to neglect the sheer enormity and breadth of the global environmental challenge. All of these small oversights build up into bigger problems like greater waste, greater carbon emissions, greater consumption of energy. In reality, it’s not just a week, or a set of lights left on- it’s an overarching mindset. The attitude that some things can be let slip, while other things are addressed, raises questions about the true progressiveness of the institution’s environmental policy.
Environmental degradation and climate change encompass the entire Earth's ecosystem: fossil fuel burning in the UK could create an acid rain shower in Germany; industrial production in China doesn’t simply confine carbon emissions to Chinese airspace; melting ice caps in the Arctic is raising sea levels globally. Therefore, by being selective in environmental policy, institutions fail to fully acknowledge that every element of environmental degradation is connected in one way or another and that policies for tackling these problem must be equally holistic in their approach. If some harmful behaviours are viewed as less significant than others, we run the risk of piling up smaller issues into much larger ones. As a result, the worst impacts of global climate change and many environmental issues will become harder, and in some cases near-impossible to tackle.
It is undoubtedly challenging for the University, and indeed all institutions and businesses, to curb habitual practises which appear to them practical or cost effective. But many elements of climate action require an upheaval and transformation of human life as we know it. It is imperative that environmental considerations are viewed as paramount, even more so than is currently the case. Of course, Glasgow has an outstanding academic reputation to uphold, but it should not be maintained at the detriment of an increased vigilance where our one and only planet earth is concerned.