By Jacqui Thompson and Murray Birt

What do you get when you take seven strangers, pile them into two small vehicles, send them on a 1,000 kilometer journey of prairie driving and road kill avoidance? You get a new group of friends learning, and thinking about the sustainability of the University of Calgary.

The Sustainable Campuses conference was held in Winnipeg between Sept. 30 and Oct. 3, and provided an opportunity for students from 26 campuses across the country to come together and learn from each other’s efforts to ‘Green the Ivory Towers’. This the sixth national conference, organized by the Sierra Youth Coalition, displayed how much students have accomplished in working in cooperation with their universities to change institutional practices towards sustainability. Conference attendees had a great passion and enthusiasm for applying the mantra ‘Think Global, Act Local’ to their campus communities.

With many success stories of students, faculty, staff and administration working together, these seven students were inspired to join this effort and help the University of Calgary become a leader in these efforts. Thus a key question became what is the U of C actually doing to minimize its ecological footprint?

Fortunately, one conference session was presented by representatives of the U of C’s Campus Infrastructure department. Mechanical projects engineer Murray Sloan and Sustainability Analyst Hans Luu gave the first public presentation of the Environmental Management System Action Plan.

The message that the students took from this presentation was that senior administration is committed to developing sustainability initiatives and that a key component of this must include students. The presentation quoted President Weingarten from the U of C’s 2001 Environmental report that “It is the University of Calgary’s goal to be both a leader in environmental education and in responsible environmental management. Strength in one area only enhances our credibility in the other.”

Despite this top level support, there is recognition that there is a large gap between the U of C’s sustainability goals and its actual practices. As students, many of us may be discouraged by some of the campus’ practices and feel powerless to change anything. However, the Sustainable Campuses conference demonstrated how much a small group of motivated, passionate students can accomplish. Many of the success stories at other campuses came as a result of student involvement.

This is why the U of C students who attended the conference are strongly supportive and encouraged by the administration’s goals of improving campus practices, making such changes as energy retrofits can reduce emissions and save money with a portion of cost savings being used to fund other projects and initiatives.

The students who attended the conference want to work cooperatively to actually implement sustainable practices. As a gesture of goodwill and support for the administration’s efforts, students are purchasing a quantity of wind power equivalent to the electricity used to power President Weingarten’s desktop computer for three years. With many organizations in Calgary implementing sustainability initiatives such as investing in renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is important that the U of C maintain its credibility with other institutions. If provided with leadership and opportunities to contribute, students are ready and willing to work with all campus stakeholders to reduce the university’s ecological footprint.

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