Greening the Classroom... it’s a start.
By Dr Mike Atkinson
Whether you believe that global warming is one of the most serious challenges we face in the 21st century or that it is wildly exaggerated, the fact remains that dumping endless tons of CO2 into the atmosphere is not good. Sure there are natural processes that absorb some of the greenhouse gasses, but the net increase to our atmosphere is on the order of 4 billion metric tons per year (4,000,000,000,000,000 kilograms). To put this in perspective, this amount is about twice the combined weight of all the fish in all the oceans in the world. The biggest culprit is CO2 emissions related to the burning of fossil fuels. Over the next 20 years, world CO2 emissions are expected to increase at the rate of almost 2 percent per year. The impact of this buildup on the Earth’s climate is potentially catastrophic and most climate scientists warn that the average temperature of the planet will continue to increase (we are currently one degree Celsius short of the highest planet temperature in the last million years).
We must try to do something before it is too late. Individually, we should all recycle, use less energy in our homes, and reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn. But what can we do in the classroom? It is difficult to centrally control the physical structure of any classroom—turning down the heat or AC, shutting down the fans, etc. affects more than just one classroom and may affect an entire block of buildings. In addition, the start-up of equipment may actually consume more energy than we save by turning it down. So, we need to examine other options.
First of all, we should implement the same strategies in the classroom that we can use at home. There are recycling bins in most classrooms—use them. If the bins are full, ask to have them emptied. If there are no bins in your classroom, find out where they are. Replace any disposable containers you use with reusable ones. Turn off any unnecessary lights, particularly those that are less energy efficient. To the extent you can, go paperless. Encourage your teachers to post all announcements, assignments, etc. on the course website. Note: Use these electronic documents and don't print them off yourself!
But all of this will not make much of an impact on the carbon footprint of a large first year class. I estimate that my first year psychology class consumes about 93,600 kilowatt hours of energy per school year (rough estimate). This is the energy required to run the lights, fans, equipment, etc., and translates into dumping approximately 215, 280 pounds (107.6 tons) of CO2 into the atmosphere. The single largest factor I can identify that is under my control is diet. By switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet, the average person can offset up to 1.5 tons of CO2 per year—more offset savings than switching to a hybrid car. The offset works primarily by reducing transportation and processing costs associated with meat production (not to mention those fluctuant methane-producing cows). I do not consider myself a vegetarian, but if I eat vegetarian on Tuesdays and Thursdays (class days), this will create a savings of approximately 16.44 pounds of CO2 per week-- 427.44 pounds over the school year for me alone. If I can persuade 100 students in the class join me in this pledge, we save 42,744 pounds. If 400 join, we save 170, 976 pounds. We break even with a little over 500 students. Thus, by this method alone, we can run the class on a zero carbon footprint.
We can all make a difference in the amount of energy used in our classrooms. I invite you all to take the Vegi Pledge and join me in this effort. I realize that the idea of “offsetting” only works through a trickle-down effect—it will take time for this initiative to have any impact at all. In addition, my numbers are ballpark estimates at best. Maybe it takes 800 or 1200 students to break even in my classroom. I also realize that there are consequences to such action (e.g., if many people did this, the price of beef would soar), and we need to consider such outcomes. But the potential consequences of doing nothing are far more serious. Even if, in the end, all we save is a few hundred pounds, well at least we’ve done that. It’s a start.
Mike Atkinson, Psychology Department, University of Western Ontario, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.
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