Colour them green: universities embrace sustainability initiatives

A five-year agreement between Abu Dhabi's education and environmental authorities is aimed at integrating lessons on sustainability into the curriculum

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ABU DHABI // Universities are embracing environmentalism and taking steps to turn both curricula and campuses "green".

From green building to recycling initiatives, the instruction has come from the top. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, told the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) annual conference this month: "We must become leaders in sustainability practices where we continuously look for ways to preserve the environment and to conserve energy on our campuses. We must encourage education and innovation in this area."

Speaking of the new Ras Al Khaimah Women's College campus as well as expansions of the Fujairah women's college and the colleges in Al Ain, he said: "All these projects will incorporate sound sustainable development principles. In fact, our commitment to sustainable development will be further strengthened by the new academic programme in sustainable built environment." HCT, the largest federal institution with 16 colleges around the country, are going one step further, to make the curriculum and not just the buildings green.

"You can 'green' almost any curriculum," said James Pounder, the associate provost. "Even in nursing or aircraft maintenance, it's about how to dispose of materials. It's high on our agenda." A solar farm planned for Al Ain is their biggest project, which will involve UAE University. "It will be like a living, learning laboratory for the engineers there," said Dr Mark Drummond, the HCT provost. "Al Ain is the perfect place to do this and the benefit for me is that it engages the students from both universities. It gives them hands-on experience."

It is a challenging step in a country where energy is relatively low cost, he said, making it difficult to invest in solar panels, which are expensive to both buy and maintain. "It can take up to 10 years to reach the point where you're getting free energy," Dr Drummond said. "The trick is getting it funded." The green push is extending into other schools in Abu Dhabi. A five-year agreement between Abu Dhabi's education and environmental authorities is aimed at integrating lessons on sustainability into the curriculum. The Abu Dhabi Education Council and the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi agreed last week to encourage learning about environmental conservation through special projects and activities, which the agencies will develop jointly.

The newly opened women's campus at the UAE University in Al Ain was designed to a green building policy. Among its initiatives, it has a cloud network, allowing one computer server to replace 10 to 12. "We hope in the next year this will have reduced our energy consumption in this area between 40 and 60 per cent," said Nick Choban, the assistant provost for IT. The system will be rolled out across the remaining campuses over the coming months.

Zayed University in Dubai have established the Zayed Environmental Impact Network. Glass has replaced plastic in areas such as the canteen. In the first year, they have collected 26,500kg of paper and cardboard, 1,000kg of plastic and 400kg of tin. Water consumption has been a major focus of the initiative. "We have reduced our water consumption by using 'grey water' to water the plants now," said Usama Alalami, the head of the programme. Grey water is reclaimed from sinks and showers.

Green policy also is coming into play outside the federal universities. Sharjah University have just launched a bachelor of science programme in renewable and sustainable energy, registering 25 students this year. Prof Hamid al Naimiy, who headed research into the feasibility of the new degree, praised the addition of such programmes. "The market needed this, we need these experts in the UAE to find alternative energies and reduce the country's carbon footprint, in agriculture, industry, the ministries."

The programme is a collaboration between the colleges of science and engineering, allowing greater depth of subject. "The main issue is to give the students skills for the workplace when they graduate," said Prof al Naimiy.