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University plays a pioneering role in campus sustainability

The American University in Cairo (AUC) has been playing a pioneering role in achieving a sustainable campus – a response to the alarming environmental challenges that have been caused by climate change, including resource scarcity around the water-energy-food nexus, pollution and waste.

With a full-time student population of 6,068 (2021-22), the Egyptian university, established in 1919, was the first academic institution to measure and produce a carbon footprint report in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. This was in 2012 and, to date, seven of these reports have been released based on data that has been collected for at least a decade.

From 2020 to 2022 the university also dedicated US$23.5 million in funding towards sustainability research and over 300 scholarly publications on environmental sustainability have been produced. These efforts have focused overwhelmingly on decarbonisation, water management, energy efficiency and the recycling of waste materials.

AUC has also been recognised and applauded for its efforts and work in sustainability within the global space. For example, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) identified the institution as a global exemplar of university sustainability, one of the two higher education institutions in Africa selected for inclusion in UNEP’s Greening Universities Toolkit initiative.

Since 2011, AUC has also been a member of the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education AASHE) and, in 2019, for the sixth time in a row, AUC was the only university in the MENA region ranked in the Princeton Review Guide to Green Colleges.

Through its Office of Sustainability, which was established in 2011, the institution strives to infuse environmental and social sustainability as a culture into its learning structures by significantly reducing the university’s use of natural resources, improving its carbon footprint trend and increasing participation in international forums and networks for universities committed to environmental sustainability.

Towards a green campus

In an interview, Yasmin Mansour, the sustainability director at AUC, told University World News that AUC’s commitment to sustainable research and carbon footprint reporting has been driven by a plethora of challenges, following its move from the downtown Tahrir Square campus to the new Cairo campus in 2008.

The Cairo campus, based in a desert suburb 35km from the city, has often been plagued by water scarcity.

Mansour highlighted that achieving carbon neutrality by 2035 was a key priority in the institution’s vision to becoming a regional and global leader in environmental sustainability.

In this quest, AUC has reached milestones in achieving green campus status through research activities geared to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) – for example, establishing a recycling system for waste, a computer-based control system to track and monitor energy usage in buildings, and on-campus drinking water stations.

“AUC’s robust response to sustainability has been driven by establishing environmental awareness, diversity and inclusion, health and wellness, community outreach initiatives, external partnerships and a global focus.

“Our institution is always trying to have multiple, different sustainable practices in order to achieve a sustainable operational campus. One of the main operations is on mitigating and reducing our energy consumption,” Mansour said.

“Through our different initiatives, such as an on-campus co-generation plant, which runs on natural gas, we have managed to achieve a 30% reduction in energy consumption since 2012,” she added.

Office of Sustainability

Mansour emphasised the role of the Office of Sustainability in spearheading and promoting environmental sustainability activities and policies.

The office, which is a division of the office of the vice-president for management and operations, has been positioning AUC at the forefront of green, sustainable universities in the MENA region and globally.

The office’s portfolio includes issuing the biennial carbon footprint report, a biennial sustainability report, AUC green guide brochure and a monthly sustainability newsletter.

In addition to this, it is responsible for the management of AUC’s natural resources usage, including energy, water and natural gas reduction programmes, waste management, campus outreach and awareness of the environmental concerns through different channels.

According to Mansour, some of motivating goals for publishing AUC’s carbon footprint reports include the need to continue developing data and the expertise that can be used to reduce AUCs GHG emissions, to identify the highest emitters and devise mitigation strategies.

The AUC 2023 carbon footprint report, released in April, which is based on data collected in 2022, reflects significant decreases in emissions compared to data collected over the decade.

Based on standardised methodologies, from 2012 to 2022, AUC’s carbon footprint decreased by approximately 10%.

The main components of AUC’s recent carbon footprint report are heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, or HVAC factors, as well as domestic hot water, transportation, electricity for lighting and other equipment, or non-HVAC components. The report also considers water supply, paper, refrigerants, and solid waste disposal.

The report showed reductions across major categories – for example, paper use went down by 32%, water supply by 7%, and solid waste disposal by 27%. In addition, the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning’s footprint was reduced by 20% and electricity (non-HVAC) by 24%, but, transportation increased by 36%.

“By recognising the importance of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse house gas and primary indication of global warming, AUC publishes a biennial, comprehensive carbon footprint report to access, monitor and plan for reduction of its carbon emissions. This is because, as an institution, we realised that we cannot manage what we cannot measure,” said Mansour.

“By identifying sources of carbon emissions, a carbon footprint report can also be used as a guide for reducing emissions and evaluating progress on emission reduction. The 2023 carbon footprint report allows AUC to gauge and compare its emissions with that of similar institutions and to contribute to global climate change initiatives.

“The report also allows the university to strengthen its finances by permanently reducing emissions from natural gas, electricity, gasoline and diesel fuel purchased by third parties while simultaneously investing in renewable energy and sustainable development,” she said.

Campus-wide initiatives

In order to reduce its footprint, AUC also implemented campus-wide initiatives and research with a multidisciplinary focus.

Mansour noted that one of AUC’s innovative projects is the use of 100% waste water, a low-cost alternative for campus landscape irrigation.

“We are trying to reach 100% of treated waste water to irrigate the campus and reduce corresponding carbon dioxide emissions. Treated waste water reuses water that otherwise would have gone to waste, which helps protect Egypt’s water sources. These efforts help us to reduce our impact and hopefully serve as a model to other institutions to switch to treated waste-water landscaping,” she said.

To reduce plastic bottle usage on campus, the Office of Sustainability has been upgrading on-campus drinking water stations and installing dispensers for use by students, staff and faculty members. Nearly 60 water stations have been installed at the Cairo campus and Tahrir Square campus.

A number of energy efficiency initiatives were also set in place – for example, the use of LED lights, occupancy sensors and Lutron software used to control light usage across the campus. A building management system, which is a computer-based control system, was also implemented to control and monitor buildings’ mechanical and electrical equipment, such as ventilation, power supply, fire and security systems.

Mansour highlighted that the university promoted car-pooling, a method of reducing the number of cars on the road by encouraging the collective use of one car as transportation to and from the institution.

In support of this strategy, the institution integrated car-pooling into its sustainability policies with parking fees being waived for car-poolers.

Sustainability research

In order to amplify its work in environmental sustainability, AUC launched the climate change initiative in 2022 which rests on its decades of expertise in research, student and outreach activities.

The initiative focuses on five main areas, which are: water scarcity, sustainable urban communities, global health, green finance and energy transition.

AUC also established seven sustainability research centres on campus and at least 440 sustainability courses have been designed from 2019 to 2021 to tackle climate change and sustainable development, including a masters in sustainable development, which is highly ranked in Africa.

With more than 73 graduates since its inception in 2013, the programme focuses on green technologies, entrepreneurship, sustainable cities and sustainable communities.

A building sciences lab was also established to focus on the impact of construction materials on health, the impact of materials on the overall building energy efficiency as well as methods that enhance the design of residential structures and building experiences. The lab also tests building materials and measures their carbon footprint accordingly.

Another research project expected to have a mass-scale effect on decarbonisation and which is spearheaded by engineering students at AUC, focuses on bringing greener areas into the dormitories through green rooftops, which blend buildings with the natural environment, such as vegetation.

“We aim to increase our university’s commitment to innovation and research in the field of sustainability and to make the institution’s operations adherently more sustainable. We also hope to provide a replicable model that can be adopted by other institutions in the MENA region,” Mansour said.

This feature was updated on 14 June.


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