Last summer I studied abroad in Iceland. A country at the forefront of renewable energy, Iceland has the potential to be a global leader in sustainability. Its energy is almost entirely powered from geothermal and hydroelectric and thus it is capable of an exceptionally small carbon footprint. However, there is no drive for this among the Icelandic people. Lights are kept on throughout the daytime and cars are driven for errands just down the street. This contrasts remarkably with an earlier visit I made to Peru. The Peruvians lack many of the resources we take for granted in the United States and yet the environmental devastation they live within—littered streets, polluted air, and dirty water—causes no alarm among its citizens.
There are three dimensions to sustainability: social, economic, and environmental. Strong sustainability requires a balance between these three pillars—without economic stability, the government cannot implement environmental regulations and cannot provide the environmental education necessary to create a “green” movement among its people. The environmental degradation in Peru is largely due to the government’s lack of action. It is the government’s responsibility to provide its people safe, clean resources. Unfortunately, environmental law in Peru is not well enforced. Additionally, Peru has not prioritized developing renewable energy resources (although recently there has been a push for increased solar energy – hopefully that marks a turning point for Peru). And so I experienced countries at very opposite sides of a sustainability spectrum: one which economically cannot give the attention to environmental awareness that is warranted by the pressing reality of climate change and yet needs it sincerely, and another that is privileged with all that is required of an ecologically conscience nation and without the motivation to push for it among the people and culture.
After travelling to both of these beautiful countries I found myself very frustrated. Climate change looms on the horizon and the consequences of a warming planet are reason for great concern. The extent of climate change is not fully understood but what has been acknowledged is that the amplified rate at which it is occurring can be attributed to anthropogenic behavior. And this is not spread uniformly throughout the globe. Wealthy nations are contributing greatly to greenhouse gas emissions yet it will not be these same countries that most severely feel the threat of climate change. And what is even more upsetting is that the developing nations that will suffer the greatest because they do not have the economic strength and political stability to combat global warming are also mostly unaware of the dangers to come because there are many more pressing issues to confront such as inadequate food and poverty. So if the disparity between developed and developing nations was not already distressingly thick, climate change will surely broaden it further.
It is therefore the responsibility of countries such as the United States, who have the finances and the technologies, to lead our planet to a more sustainable future. The carbon emissions released by the United States does not solely affect our own citizens. It is a global crisis and so every car we drive, every coal power plant we construct, every long shower we take, and every technological device we keep plugged in is slowly yet catastrophically warming the entire planet. So, what should we do to reduce the climate change inequality that plagues our world? It starts at a local level. It requires cooperation and collaboration between leaders, businesses, and residents of a community and it demands environmental education.
Additionally, climate change inequality is not just found on the global scale. Even within the United States itself this disproportion is present. There are coastal cities at risk of flooding from sea level increase and yet they are not any more responsible for greenhouse gas emissions than the nation’s interior cities. Even on the micro scale this disparity is felt where industrial establishments directs emissions towards poverty stricken neighborhoods who cannot afford to fight this discrimation. UConn is committed to doing its part to help these efforts. In 2006 a co-generation plant was constructed to replace the previously used oil-fired utility. The co-gen burns natural gas, a cleaner fuel than oil and coal, and thus capable of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by up to 300,000 tons each year. It captures and utilizes steam to prevent efficiency loss. In 2008 former President Hogan signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). This committed the university to carbon neutrality by 2050. The co-gen plant is just one of many technologies implemented by UConn to help assist in its mission towards carbon neutrality. UConn also has a fuel cell at the Depot campus, a bike and car sharing program, a reclaimed water facility, and much more.
But change cannot solely be acquired through better infrastructure and technology. We must demand a difference. This requires the voices of UConn’s students, staff, and faculty. It necessitates a new university culture that is eco-conscience and environmentally aware. UConn has many sustainability related courses and research opportunities. It has clubs and events that allow student participation. And it has many individuals who care greatly about playing their role in environmental stewardship. UConn is forging a path. It is setting precedence for universities throughout the country and throughout the globe. UConn is a leader in sustainability and is challenging the fight against climate change inequality.
The annual ING Hartford Marathon was held on Saturday, October 12th in Bushnell Park. This year, EcoHusky and EcoHouse volunteers partnered with ING to help educate the runners and their family and friends on the importance of composting, as well as to promote UConn’s Sierra #1 Coolest Schools Ranking.
Approximately 30 volunteers attended the event and helped “man-the-can.” Garbage, recycling, and composting bins were placed together and volunteers monitored and instructed on the disposal of waste.
Like UConn, Hartford also has single stream recycling. This means that any recyclable—glass, metal, paper, plastic—can be placed in the same bin and it will later be separated at a recycling facility. This simplifies the process of recycling and promotes consumer participation.
Runners were provided with an assortment of food options after their race including bagels, apple crumble, and grilled cheese. They were advised on what food is compostable—this applies to most products but excludes dairy and meat and thus some food had to be disposed of in the garbage bins. Fortunately, however, runners were given their food on compostable plates with compostable napkins so only the plastic spork could not be composted. Composting is an earth-friendly way to reduce methane emissions from landfills and support carbon footprint reduction. It enriches soil, helping retain moisture and suppress plant diseases and reduces the need of harmful chemical fertilizers. Compost can be used on your yard and saves money.
EcoHusky members also set up a table in the park where they had a memory-matching recycling game and sustainability themed trivia questions to engage those passing by.
In addition to promoting composting, this served as an opportunity for volunteers to inform members outside of its own community about the many sustainability initiatives and programs at UConn. Runners come from all throughout Connecticut to participate in the marathon so it offered UConn the occasion to discuss our recently earned Sierra #1 Coolest Schools ranking.
Góðan daginn! My name is Emily McInerney and I am an OEP intern majoring in Natural Resources. I will be entering my junior year of college this fall semester. I recently spent seven weeks of my summer studying abroad in Iceland. When I first told friends and family of my plans I was met by confusion and concern. Mostly I received the astonished, “You really want to spend your SUMMER in ICEland?” or “Isn’t that where the sun never goes down? How will you sleep?” Well, I decided it was worth forgoing a tan because, as an environmentalist who aspires to an environmental career, Iceland is the perfect place to advance my education. Its geographic location and topography allow for the utilization of geothermal and hydroelectric energy and set Iceland at the forefront of renewable energy with the potential to lead the world toward a more sustainable energy budget.
Iceland is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where it lies on the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and is considered a geologic rarity with glaciers and volcanoes creating a uniquely contrasting landscape. Beginning in 1999, the Icelandic government took initiative and began creating a clean energy Master Plan that described a list of prospective hydropower and geothermal project alternatives and ranked them based on their environmental, economic, and social implications.
I spent much of the trip further researching the highly controversial Kárahnjúkar hydropower plant (constructed prior to the implementation of the Master Plan) in northeastern Iceland. Hydropower constitutes more than 70% of Iceland’s electricity. In 2010, only 42% of hydropower available for generation had been utilized. There is therefore still opportunity for the expansion of hydroelectric energy. Hydropower is constantly replenished by the hydrological cycle and produces electricity through the process of harnessing running water. Its efficiency can be as high as 80% but it does not come without consequences. So while hydropower is, of course, better for the environment than coal, oil, and natural gas, especially since it is not a source of greenhouse gas emissions, it still has negative environmental impacts.
Hydropower requires the construction of dams and reservoirs, which can greatly transform the natural hydrologic patterns and disturb the geologic features and cycles of an area. Damming a river alters the flow of water, leading to sediment buildup upstream and thus erosion downstream, which therefore causes changes to the river channel and watershed area morphology. The altered water flow also results in a change of downstream water quality. This includes nutrient composition, temperature, and turbidity of the water and will thus affect which species the waterway is habitable to. For dams located near areas of high seismic activity, which is very common in Iceland, special consideration needs to be given to the design, because any tectonic activity could greatly damage the dam and cause significant changes to the movement of water in the area.
The Kárahnjúkar hydroelectric project raised public concern because of the environmental impacts listed above and because it provided electricity to the American greenhouse-gas-emitting aluminum smelter company, Alcoa (counter intuitive, right?). Many Icelanders were uncomfortable with the development of the power plant because it is also located within the bounds of the Kringilsárrani nature reserve, recognized for its geologic formations and thus identified as a protected area. The National Planning Agency initially rejected the plan for the project, citing that the Environmental Impact Assessment did not provide sufficient information, but the Minister for the Environment approved it four months later.
I contacted Herdís Helga Schopka (the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry’s expert who worked on the development of Iceland’s Master Plan) and inquired how, given her experience in the process of ranking the energy alternatives, she suspected Kárahnjúkar would have compared to the geothermal and hydroelectric projects evaluated in the Master Plan. She explained that the purpose of the Master Plan is to try and eliminate biases by putting it through a ranked process and that it is difficult to make an impartial decision when there is no price tag put on nature. Kárahnjúkar was essentially built because energy development coupled with the construction of aluminum factories is perceived to have many economic benefits. Therefore, there is less motivation to save the land- without monetizing the environmental costs they cannot outweigh the economic gains. She reasoned that while the power plant may have been built based onits Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), it would not have been constructed if it had been analyzed and ranked in the Master Plan.
I then followed up with Brynhildur Davidsdottir (a Program for Environment and Natural Resources Studies professor at the University of Iceland) for a second opinion. She concluded that there must be a balance between the three dimensions (environment, economy, and society) to achieve sustainability. Weak sustainability must have positive movement overall but it allows for tradeoffs. Strong sustainability has positive movement for all three dimensions. For Kárahnjúkar, it was easy to rationalize the economic value of the power plant as outweighing the environmental degradation because there was no ranking system applied to the EIA. Therein lies the tradeoff and thus it characterizes weak sustainability. The Master Plan, however, uses multi-criteria analysis and gives all three dimensions numerical value and thus portrays strong sustainability by creating a platform for comparison.
This concept can be applied to UConn’s Climate Action Plan (CAP). In 2008, UConn’s president signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). This committed the university to carbon neutrality by 2050. Unfortunately, UConn doesn’t have the same access to renewable resources that Iceland does. Instead, the University created the CAP to organize mitigation and adaptation strategies for climate change and to help advance sustainability on campus. The CAP’s mitigation strategies are organized into three groups: energy, sustainable development, and transportation. Each group lists tactics for improvement and describes their estimated emissions reduction, first cost, rate of investment, and time of implementation. These tactics are then ranked as either limiting, good, or excellent.
Although not a numerical ranking as seen in the Master Plan, the CAP utilizes a similar technique to compare the environmental benefits in terms of carbon dioxide reduction to the cost of the project or program. The social aspect is not directly applicable to the CAP and was not included. The CAP can thus be said to characterize strong sustainability. UConn recently received the number one ranking for the Sierra Club’s 2013 Cool Schools Survey and this can largely be attributed to how UConn has strategized and implemented measures for achieving carbon neutrality and its technique for assessing the feasibility of its greenhouse gas reduction measures.
What I found supremely interesting about Iceland is that, despite having the capacity to run the entire country on renewable energy, it has a horribly large carbon footprint. This is because the general public does not understand what it means to be sustainable. They have plenty of warm water so they take long showers. They drive everywhere, even down the block for a quick coffee, because, to put it simply, they can – it’s socially acceptable.
Here at UConn, we are working to educate students, staff, and faculty on the importance of being environmentally friendly. This is done through the many events we hold throughout the year: EcoMadness, Earth Day Spring Fling, CIMA, and much more. This new number one ranking should give students pride in their school and will hopefully help us continue to decrease our carbon footprint.
Each spring the OEP along with the UConn Department of Dining Services’ Local Routes Program, EcoHusky Student Group and EcoHouse Learning Community organizes a sustainability festival called Earth Day Spring Fling (EDSF). The event features a multitude of student groups and campus departments as well as eco-friendly vendors/exhibitors. This year’s celebration will be held on April 18th from 11:00am to 2:00pm with an inclement weather date of April 19th.
Located on Fairfield Way, students can easily stop by for a quick bite to eat on their way to and from class. Dining Services provides delicious local food (including vegetarian/vegan options) purchasable by either a flex pass or $9.00 in cash. All dishware is reusable to assist in achieving a low-waste event—with the bulk of waste being either recycled or composted. Hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and Mansfield community members are expected to attend. A diversity of vendors will be attending (approximately 35 to 40), including UConn’s very own EcoHusky Student Group, Kicks for Africa (a non-profit created by UConn student Chibuikem Nwanonyiri that collects lightly used shoes to send over to children in Africa), the Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, Lili D Magpie Creations (sustainable jewelry), Capitol Clean Cities (an organization dedicated to increasing the use of eco-friendly vehicles) and much more.
UConn was recently ranked 5th on Sierra Club’s Cool School Survey this past year and we aim to continue improving sustainability on campus so we can reach our goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Students are encouraged to come and learn more about what they can do to help promote sustainability on campus. This event offers the opportunity to learn more about environmental initiatives implemented at UConn as well as general sustainable practices. Some vendors will be selling products or handing out free samples while others may provide informational pamphlets.
Students can sit amongst their friends in the lawn area surrounding Fairfield Way and simply relax or seek out Jonathan the Husky who will be posing for photos to attract students toward our fundraising initiatives as part of the Ignite Challenge (Students 4 Sustainbility). Live acoustic music will be performed by two local bands named Skychase and Research n Development. There will also be a tree planting at 1:00pm on the east side of Budds Building.
Come join us and help UConn celebrate its biggest environmental awareness event of the year. With spring in the air, let’s cross our fingers and hope for warm weather. We hope to see you there!
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