Our Carbon Footprint

Of all the countries in the Arab world, Egypt may be the most vulnerable to global warming. The rising sea level predicted by climate change models threatens to flood large swaths of the Nile Delta, Egypt’s breadbasket, undermining Egypt’s food security and threatening the livelihoods of millions of agricultural workers. Key population centers are also at risk, most notably the city of Alexandria.

Of all the countries in the Arab world, Egypt may be the most vulnerable to global warming. The rising sea level predicted by climate change models threatens to flood large swaths of the Nile Delta, Egypt’s breadbasket, undermining Egypt’s food security and threatening the livelihoods of millions of agricultural workers. Key population centers are also at risk, most notably the city of Alexandria.

It was this realization that led the Desert Development Center and the Sustainability Office at the American University in Cairo to undertake what appears to be the first carbon footprint study of an institution of higher education in the Middle East and North Africa. The study also responds to concerns raised about the sustainability of AUC’s own operations since the university moved most of its activities from a small ninety-three-year-old campus in downtown Cairo to a new 260-acre campus in the sprawling desert suburb of New Cairo, about thirty-five kilometers to the east.

Carbon footprints are widely used as a measure of the impact of human activities on global warming. In AUC’s case, a principal goal of the study is to develop information that can be used to mitigate climate change by reducing AUC’s own greenhouse gas emissions. Another important goal is to strengthen the university’s finances for the long term by permanently reducing its appetite for carbon-based energy sources such as natural gas, electricity, and gasoline that must be purchased from third parties. Thus, the carbon footprint research team, consisting of faculty, staff, students, and recent graduates, zeroed in on cooling, heating, lighting, and transportation, the usual suspects when it comes to wasteful uses of energy. Additionally, the AUC carbon footprint team sought to focus the attention of the region and the world on the little-understood connection between water consumption and energy use.

AUC’s research team started with carbon footprint calculation software (Campus Carbon Calculator, developed by Clean Air-Cool Planet, a U.S.-based non-profit group) used by higher education institutions across North America. This turned out to be far from a simple matter of plugging in some numbers; in many instances the features of the software had to be adapted to work in Egypt and modified to meet AUC’s particular circumstances. When it came to gathering the necessary data, student researchers fanned out across the New Cairo campus to study records of operations and collaborated with staff members in numerous departments to refine raw data into formats usable for carbon footprint calculations.

Finding data on commuting to and from campus by private car was a particular challenge since the university maintained no records. Undaunted, students devised and administered an online transportation survey that generated more than two thousand responses. In addition, AUC’s researchers, with the assistance of a team of outside experts, calculated the energy used and the carbon emissions resulting from pumping water from the Nile–more than fifty-four kilometers away–and more than three hundred meters uphill to the elevation of the New Cairo campus.

The AUC team found that the overall carbon footprint of the New Cairo campus—using the university’s 2011 fiscal year (September 2010 to August 2011) as the baseline—is the equivalent of about sixty thousand metric tons of carbon. This is comparable to the footprints of colleges and universities in North America of a similar size. As expected, the largest sources of carbon emissions are the use of natural gas to produce chilled and hot water for the university’s heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) system, and the use of electricity (both purchased from the public utility and generated on campus) for circulating the chilled and hot water through the HVAC system, for lighting, and for operating mechanical equipment.

Given the location of the New Cairo campus on a high desert plateau and the need for air conditioning for more than half the year, the team initially assumed that it would find outsized carbon emissions from the HVAC system. However, the study demonstrated that to the contrary, features included in the original campus design to minimize energy use have indeed had a positive impact. Importantly, the footprint analysis shows that carbon emissions can be reduced from 2011 levels by generating more (and cheaper) electricity on campus and buying less from the public utility. This is because electricity is produced on campus by burning natural gas, while the public utility uses a less clean burning fuel mix. Further significant reductions in carbon emissions and additional cost savings can be achieved by using treated wastewater to irrigate campus landscaping.

The second major contributor to AUC’s carbon footprint is transportation, including the commuter bus system operated across Cairo by the university, commuting in private cars by students, faculty, and staff, and business air travel by faculty and administrators. The transportation survey revealed a growing interest on the part of students and others in carpooling as a way to save energy and reduce emissions from car exhaust. The university is working on ways to encourage carpooling through parking fee incentives, creating a car-pooling website, and changing working hours and event schedules.

While most universities attempt modest carbon emission reductions once they have established a baseline, the truly ambitious seek a goal of climate neutrality or net zero carbon emissions. AUC is still far from such a goal, but the pathways to reach net zero are clear from the footprint. The footprint can be reduced by drastically cutting energy used for cooling, heating, and lighting, and by reusing and recycling water and solid wastes. The transportation system can be transformed by strategies such as converting the university’s buses to natural gas, a much cleaner burning fuel than gasoline or diesel. Public awareness campaigns can be used to modify individual and institutional consumption patterns so that conserving energy and water become new habits. The university can bring its own considerable scientific resources to bear by using and thereby promoting the use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power on campus. An underlying objective in measuring AUC’s carbon footprint: to help raise climate change awareness and serve as a regional example for combatting the causes of global warming.

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