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Panel discusses University's efforts to promote environmental sustainability on campus

by Richard Veilleux - February 11, 2008

Against a backdrop framed by the knowledge that the environment will be one of three focus areas in Provost Peter Nicholls’ new Academic Plan, and a pledge from President Michael Hogan that UConn will become a leader in the environmental movement, a panel of faculty on Jan. 31 discussed what UConn can do to promote environmental sustainability on campus.

“The Academic Plan’s focus on the environment, as a blueprint of what we need to do, is very promising,” said David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

“Right now, there’s a chance we’ll see action from the top down and from the bottom up. I’m very encouraged by the EcoHusky group [a student group promoting environmental awareness and activities on campus]. We have a real opportunity to change the campus climate.”

The evening panel discussion in Konover Auditorium capped three days of movies, teach-ins, and other events at UConn as part of Focus the Nation, a countrywide climate change awareness event.

More than 60 UConn faculty members at Storrs and the regional campuses took part in the event, devoting their classes to a discussion of climate change and greenhouse gases, and what can be done to stanch global warming and improve the outlook for the future.

The Jan. 31 panel, moderated by Veronica Makowsky, vice provost for undergraduate education and regional campus administration, and Gregory Anderson, vice provost for research and dean of the Graduate School, kept its focus local and, for the most part, discussed small steps that could contribute to the greater good.

Lyle Scruggs, an associate professor of political science, offered a look at the University’s carbon footprint.

He showed a slide indicating that in 2006, 51 percent of the greenhouse gases emanating from Storrs were produced by energy generated on campus, and another 26 percent by electricity produced by external suppliers. Another 16 percent was created by vehicles, he said.

Scruggs offered some ideas that would lower those numbers, including improving the efficiency of the co-generation plant; switching to non-fossil fuels; constructing better, more efficient buildings; and extending power generated at the co-generation plant to area homes and businesses.

He also suggested using promotional strategies to decrease meat consumption (the production of meat uses massive amounts of energy); and making commuting to campus more expensive and, perhaps, instituting a carbon tax, that would be tied to incentives for departments that reduced their greenhouse gases.

Brenda Shaw, an associate professor of chemistry, suggested that UConn become a model community to change the way people and businesses act.

“We have special research here, and because we have special knowledge and know how to present it, we have a social responsibility to deliver that,” she said.

“It’s not just the fuel in our cars, the fuel to heat our homes,” she added.

“It’s plastic cups, furniture. Everything we touch is a product of the environment. We need to look at everything we do.”

Irene Brown, an associate professor emerita of human development and family studies who was in the audience, said one of the things UConn faculty and staff should do is walk more, particularly when faced with a choice of stairs or an elevator.

“Think of all the energy we’d save if we never used an elevator,” she said, adding that it would take a change in the campus mindset to make that work, however.

Among other things, she said, people would be forced to “slow down and stop scheduling meetings back-to-back.”

Wagner agreed, saying that there are more cars in use on the Storrs campus than at most other universities.

He also emphasized the importance of walking, noting that more foot traffic around campus would “contribute not only to fewer greenhouse gases, but would also lead to a decline in obesity and gains in our mental and physical health, and probably even our creativity.”

Scruggs noted that while lifestyle changes are a fine idea that will certainly contribute to reducing society’s carbon footprint, they are not enough.

“These culture changes will take a couple of decades to enact,” yet global climate change is moving much faster than that, he said, noting that scientists are predicting a two-to-four degree increase in average temperatures by 2050.

“We first started to notice climate change around 1945,” Scruggs said. “But the real problems took a long time to get going, and it will take 100 years to clean it up.”

Repairing that damage can start in the classroom, Wagner suggested.

Returning to the news that the provost’s academic plan will have a specific focus on the environment, he said, “The climate and the timing are here, and I look forward to seeing the culture of campus change.”

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