In this year’s “Green League” of British Universities, Oxford University came a dismal 50th out of the 119 universities surveyed. Our appalling environmental performance is alarming when you consider how much greater our financial resources must be than, say, the Universities of Gloucestershire, Plymouth, or West England, which occupy the top three positions of this league table. Furthermore, our low ranking is highly ironic when you consider that a vast proportion of the ground-breaking climate change research currently taking place in the UK is happening in Oxford University.
I see this disparity between our research and our behaviour as a result of two main factors. Firstly, the University’s collegiate structure means that decision-making is dispersed and this makes it difficult to enact major change on a wide scale. Secondly, the fact that Oxford University is by nature a conservative institution means that it is, in many ways, fundamentally resistant to modernisation. However, when you consider that Cambridge, another traditional and collegiate institution, came 5th in the league, these arguments lose clout!
There is no longer any shadow of a doubt that climate change is happening, that it is to a great extent anthropogenic, and that we will all suffer its effects within our own lifetimes. The folk from The Age of Stupid really pack a punch when they sum up our position like this: “Our generation is the first with the knowledge, skills and technology to prevent catastrophic climate change – but the last that can do so. It is up to us to decide if we have a future or not.” (If you haven’t seen The Age of Stupid – an excellent new climate change feature film – then make sure you catch it in one of the many screenings all over Oxford in 6th week a.k.a. “Green Week”).
Oxford University needs to stop dragging its heels. A first-class institution like ours should not only be producing cutting edge research; it should also be prepared to adjust its actions and way of life in accordance with the science that it generates. Oxford University should be a trail-blazer not just in its climate change research, but also in the environmental policies and initiatives which dictate its day-to-day workings. We need to understand that tradition and prestige need not stand in the way of working towards a sustainable future, but that they can, and indeed must go hand in hand with real environmental responsibility.
Colleges have a crucial role to play in this. If the UK is to succeed in considerably cutting back greenhouse gas emissions, this challenge must be tackled at every level; impulses must come from government, industry and also from small organizations such as our colleges. Governments will only legislate adequately if they feel that there is sufficient concern among the electorate for them to do so. And the same goes for institutions. If the students do not demand it, we can be quite sure that colleges will do next to nothing to cut their emissions. The changes that we need to see over the coming years as we move toward a low-carbon future will only be achieved through peer-groups and communities working together to change mentalities and enact institutional change. This means you and your friends getting together to demand that your college comes up with a plan for responding to the threats of climate change. And then, together, we can ensure that the University claws its way up the national league table. But none of this can happen unless enough of us demand it.
Start by finding out how well your college is currently performing in OUSU`s latest “Green League” of Oxford Colleges, and make sure that your student Environment Representatives and crucial college officials such as your Domestic Bursar and the Master of your college know their ranking: 1.Linacre, 2.Balliol, 3.Madgalen, 4.Keble, 5.St John’s, 6.University, 7.Wadham, 8.Merton, 9.Corpus Christi, 10.Queen’s, 11.ChristChurch, 12.St Anne’s, 13.Teddy Hall, 14.St. Hugh’s, 15.Hertford, 16.Wolfson, 17.Oriel, 18.New, 19.Worcester, 20.LMH, 21.St. Catz, 22.St. Hilda’s, 23.Green, 24.Lincoln, 25.Jesus, 26.Brasenose, 27.St Peter’s, 28.Somerville, 29.Trinity, 30.Pembroke, 31.Mansfield, 32.Nuffield, 33.Exeter.
Linacre have done tremendous work and succeeded in becoming a “Carbon Neutral” College. Balliol’s second place ranking was based on an accumulation of green initiatives, most importantly their 2005 Energy Audit and their compilation in 2007 of a detailed Environmental Policy. Students of other colleges need to insist that their colleges undergo an Energy Audit and that they compile a comprehensive policy for responding to the recommendations of the audit. And then they need to work with staff and fellows towards implementing the measures that ensue. Without these documents, there can be no real framework within which colleges can begin to make the necessary emissions cuts.
This term Balliol launched “Balliol Unplugged”, an Energy Efficiency Campaign planned by a committee of students and staff in order to generate an energy-saving “culture” throughout college. We hope to set an example for increased environmental responsibility within the University. Make sure your college isn’t lagging too far behind. This is a race we simply cannot afford to lose.