Environmental concerns leave the University in a tight spot

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It has been a tough time for the University recently. After being officially declared one of the least sexually active universities in the country, York has reached new lows in its environmental performance, falling to 83rd in the newly released People and Planet Green League. Down from the dizzying heights of 35th two years ago, is such a decline cause for concern?

Devoid of any context such a slump may appear dramatic, but the University’s score has declined only slightly since a year ago, when it was still among the 50 greenest universities in the country. In terms of prestige, coming top of the green league is marginally ahead of being declared the most promiscuous campus in Britain, with the top performers hardly bastions of academic excellence.

We are it seems, more environmentally concerned than the likes of Oxford and Warwick and only marginally behind Cambridge and Imperial. In terms of performance, the perception of a total disaster might be somewhat of an overreaction.

However, there is no denying that the University could have done better. Marked down for its environmental auditing and management systems, its waste disposal programme has been poor. Committing it to landfill or disposing of it via the sewer, neither is particularly impressive from an environmental point of view.
But while receiving a large round zero in the sustainable food column and a poor score in terms of carbon reduction may be disappointing, to lay the blame squarely at the feet of “the University” would be unfair.

While environmental issues are a pressing concern to some, the reality is that there remains a large degree of apathy. To significantly reduce carbon consumption is impossible without an environmental ethos at the heart of the University; the student body. With the University footing the bill for all those living on campus, those cold winter nights bring a great temptation to turn one’s room into a bubble of tropical warmth. Whether it be leaving the kitchen light on after that late cup of coffee or leaving computers on all night; a large amount of the University’s electricity consumption is determined by the student body.

Yet the survey is indicative of the difficult position universities are in. They are no longer seen as simply hubs of academic excellence but are expected to live up to standards of perfection in areas totally unrelated to academic performance. While I am not for a minute suggesting they have no environmental responsibility, this is not their main focus. They are placed under contradictory demands.

For students, the predominant concern with university life is cost, not the environment. As any trip round the supermarket will tell you, the environmental option is rarely the cheaper one while renewable energy is renowned for being expensive. Sustainable foods, renewable energy, ethical shopping and low carbon emissions all sound very good, but are considerably less attractive in practice. With finances tight, would the knowledge that we were eating sustainably farmed fish be sufficient incentive to pay that bit more for it?

To put it another way, are we prepared to put our money where our mouth is?