University Environmental Centers: Leading the Way to A Greener Future

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The ever-changing climate of the Earth has been the source of ongoing research, debate, education and action for years. More recently, due to troubling observations occurring in our ecosystems, this topic has become even more prevalent and important.

Environmental activists, such as Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, have taken to the world’s stage drawing attention to climate change, beseeching world leaders to set forth actionable steps toward the reduction of carbon emissions and inspiring new generations to do their part in supporting the health of our planet. As more champions of environmental responsibility emerge, the movement for sustainability and green living grows.

In 1990, 22 representatives from universities around the globe convened in Talloires, France, to participate in a discussion regarding the role of universities in the education and promotion of environmental management and sustainability. It was determined that, as the key educators of individuals who graduate into roles that help shape and oversee the institutions of society, universities bear an immediate responsibility to increase awareness and provide the necessary tools and resources to help create a sustainable future. The conference concluded with the creation of the Talloires Declaration, a ten-point action plan committing to programs promoting sustainability and environmental literacy at colleges and universities. As of March 2019, 507 universities across 59 countries have signed on to implement change and put forth the agenda of environmental responsibility as laid out in the declaration.

The United States boasts 172 universities and colleges that have signed on to the declaration and many more who are equally committed to providing support toward a movement of ecological awareness. The University of Colorado’s Environmental Center is one such institution making monumental strides toward a goal of a greener future. Founded in 1970 by students, the CU Environmental Center is the oldest, largest and most accomplished student-led environmental center in the US. Providing information on sustainability to the university community, the center seeks resident engagement through the availability and use of its many programs.

In 1976, the CU Environmental Center started a campus recycling program that has grown to become the largest and most successful recycling program at a university today. They also manage programs for sustainable transportation that promote the use of mass transit and bikes as alternatives to cars, energy programs for renewable energy and energy conservation, environmental literacy and student involvement and action.

Through their Campus Sustainability Program, the center has created initiatives aimed at reducing the campus’ impact on the environment. Colorful pollinator gardens planted throughout campus aid the declining pollinator species, including butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and other wildlife that feed from pollinating plants. They have also committed to the elimination of the use of toxic chemicals on campus grounds. “For ten years, we have not used toxic or synthetic chemicals on the turf around campus,” said Dave Newport, CU Environmental Center director, “and the place looks beautiful.” Dave also spoke of another innovative measure to care for the campus grounds, the use of a compost tea. This tea is brewed by the CU grounds people using water and compost from organic materials and is used to water campus grounds, providing compost-derived nutrients to the turf and gardens.

At Stanford University, the Stanford Woods Institute acts as the university’s hub for environmental and sustainability research. The Institute’s many global initiative programs work to build a future that meets the needs of society while sustaining the planet. Their Center for Ocean Solutions works to improve the health of the oceans and address the challenges of sustaining ocean health in a rapidly changing climate. Through the work of the Global Freshwater Initiative, Stanford researchers are working to develop strategies and solutions to aid in the threats to freshwater resources and the impending global water crisis due to climate change, shifts in land use, increasing population and decaying infrastructure.

The University of North Carolina is home to more than a dozen centers focused on environmental studies. One such center is the Center for Galapagos Studies. UNC, in collaboration with the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, runs the Galapagos Science Center. The state-of-the-art center, located on San Cristobal Island, is the only center run by a university in the Galapagos. Their research addresses the current challenges facing the delicate ecosystem of the Galapagos due to population growth and increases in tourism.

Guiding a new generation of environmental problem solvers, universities and colleges are stepping up to the task of addressing critical environmental issues facing our world today and in the future. To funnel student creativity into projects aimed toward this noble goal is the most important work created by university environmental centers, according to Dave Newport. “We all want to do something good,” he said. “The ability to serve our students is why we are successful in terms of sustainability.” ■

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