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Comment: Different shades of green

Maybe our university’s way to be environment-friendly is not the only way, argues Julie Skak, who has just been in Singapore

I was a bit curious about sustainability at the National University of Singapore before I went.

How does a country with a growth rate of nine percent a year practice sustainability at the same time? From the outside, green initiatives may seem a bit pale.

I have to admit that I arrived with an ‘okay, show me what you got Singapore’ feeling. ‘I bet you are not half as sustainable as we are in Denmark,’ I thought.

It did not take long for me to get wiser. During my stay in Singapore my experience was that the differences between the two universities approach to sustainability was not about being green or not, but more a question about different shades of green.

Holistic approach, or energy reduction

During my internship in Singapore I worked on everything from checklists for green event certificates to calculating the CO2-emissions from aircraft used by the university. Compared to the University of Copenhagen this is a quite different way of embracing the idea of a green university.

At the University of Copenhagen our main focus is on energy saving in buildings and how this might help cutting down CO2 emissions. This focus on energy reduction means that it is very realistic that the University of Copenhagen will succeed in reaching targets for 2013 reducing both energy consumption and CO2 emissions by 20 per cent between 2006 and 2013.

On the other hand, we have not yet come to the point where we can look deeply into waste management or aircraft pollution. These are also important, and something that we might want to work with in the future.

Therefore, after a couple of weeks in Singapore, I asked myself about this trade-off and the reasons behind it.

Student commitment

While I was enrolled as an intern at the Office of Environmental Sustainability at the National University of Singapore I got the chance to work closely with several student organisations on different projects. Student groups play a role as an active party in starting new projects and carrying out events here.

The student groups involved in the environmental work at the university looked at smaller projects that related to their everyday life and with an immediate effect from which they could enjoy the benefits from right away.

This had a knock-on-effect on the work that was done at the Office of Environmental Sustainability which meant that also my full time co-workers would end up working with smaller, more ‘NGO-like’ projects.

Understanding the difference

The co-operation with student groups and the focus on what smaller projects generate means that the National University of Singapore takes a more holistic approach to the task of changing their university into a more sustainable one. Especially when comparing to a university such as the University of Copenhagen you see the difference.

The green approach in Singapore seams to be based on a high level of student commitment in sustainable development at the university. The students live and work at the campus area. Therefore it is only natural that they pay a great deal of interest in their surroundings. This is something you rarely see at the University of Copenhagen, where only a very limited amount of students has been fortunate enough to get a room in some of the old colleges own by the university in the centre of the city. The rest of us have accommodation in private colleges, dorms and private apartments.

I found out in Singapore that it makes a huge difference whether students refer to their university as their own home. Many students here may be involved in environmental work at home or sort their waste, but it is not going to be a university project, simply because this part of their life does not have anything to do with the life as a student at the University of Copenhagen.

A trade-off

So there is a trade-off in changing universities into greener ones. Neither the National University of Singapore nor the University of Copenhagen have been able to both take a holistic approach, and reach specific goals – it seams as though you can only go one way or another, at least at the moment. Deciding what will be the most important and realistic path towards a greener university seems to depend on other factors such as student housing and the resulting commitment of students.

So the university may be coloured in different shades of green, but both shades cover a wider spectrum of the university. What the future will bring for this area of university work is still open, but to me it seems we have some exciting work ahead.

The IARU co-operation, that both the University of Copenhagen and the National University of Singapore are a part of, can bridge these differences and help make an informed trade-off between the different approaches. This, I see as the only way to make qualitative decisions about which green colour to paint our universities with.

See also my article on biking in Singapore here, and my pictures of the experience here.

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