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The Green Life: First Steps: On-Campus Environmentalism in China

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August 25, 2010

First Steps: On-Campus Environmentalism in China


illustration by Aesthetic Apparatus
The subdued, leafy campus of China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in suburban Shanghai is the site of a green crusade. A walk around reveals amenities you won't find on most campuses in China or elsewhere in the developing world: recycling points amid pleasant colonnades, reminders to shut off lights, and name-badge recycling stations.

In America, where energy conservation and recycling have been campus staples for decades, these would hardly be worth mentioning. But in China, CEIBS is on the cutting edge of a movement that's growing slowly by the numbers but greatly in influence.

In Beijing, China Youth Climate Action Network cohosted the International Youth Summit on Energy and Climate Change in July in part to convince Chinese colleges to reduce their emissions by 20% by 2012.

Nobody, however, has determined how many schools in China—or worldwide, for that matter—can be considered environmentally responsible. Part of the problem is defining what exactly constitutes a green college. Does it require LEED-certified buildings? A recycling program? A strong environmental science curriculum? Perhaps the easiest marker is whether a school's leaders have signed the Talloires Declaration, a 1990 document committing higher-education schools to sustainability. At press time, there were 419 signatories, 255 of them outside the United States, with large concentrations in Canada, England, Brazil, and Australia.

Nonetheless, there's little question that most of the world's universities—especially those in Asia and Africa—are well behind those in America in regard to carrying out environmental solutions.

Shanghai's CEIBS serves as an excellent case study within China's massive postsecondary educational system. Founded in 1994, it's a small but powerful outpost for business education (it has a respected MBA program) and increasingly for environmentalism. Its move toward earth-mindedness wasn't spurred by faculty, the administration, or the government but rather by students.

In 2006 an MBA student founded CEIBS's Green Campus Initiative, aiming to minimize the amount of paper she saw being thrown away. This was no small task; office-paper recycling is still rare in China, and school officials required plenty of convincing. Add to that other confounding elements (such as Shanghai's roving bands of unauthorized recyclers), and what should have been a relatively simple matter of distributing recycling bins turned into a complex two-year ordeal.

Thanks to Green Campus's activism, though, conservationist thinking has gained traction at CEIBS. The school is constructing a new campus, and at students' prodding, the architects are incorporating green-building concepts. In China, this isn't easy: Most of the nation's edifices are notoriously energy-guzzling, lacking even basic efficiency features such as insulation and storm windows.

The new CEIBS buildings won't be LEED certified—it wasn't affordable—but the new structures will incorporate the 80/20 rule. That's 80% energy reduction for 20% of the investment. In Asia, environmental leaders have to be as pragmatic as they are idealistic, and this compromise will result in one of Shanghai's most energy-efficient complexes—and serve as an example to builders throughout the metropolis.

A two-hour flight from Shanghai is the University of Hong Kong (UHK), an early signer of the Talloires Declaration. UHK started aggressively pursuing energy-saving policies in 1990 and touts its reduced CO2 footprint. Its new Centennial campus, financed in part by China's economic boom, is on track for LEED certification and will have its own metro stop to help make it a car-free campus. The standard it sets makes UHK a national sustainability leader. The rest of China—and the rest of the world—might do well to take note.

--Adam Minter

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