PVGC: Chris, I see that it’s in the 70s today in Qatar, which seems pretty comfortable. But I have read that it can get up to 115 degrees F there. How you stay cool in a sustainable way living in Qatar?
CS: For probably about 4 months of the year, I would say it’s extremely hot. It’s a tough place to try to be sustainable with air conditioning going 24/7. There’s a tendency for people to take the a/c for granted because it’s something that is part of the space now throughout the summer and throughout the year. So we have to spend a good amount of time reminding people to turn off and also adjust their a/c, and also use natural outside ventilation when it’s possible. But for about 6 months a year it’s comfortable, and then in the winter we don’t have heating so we don’t have to worry about heating bills.
PVGC: Good point. How would you describe the culture of the student population in regards to sustainability?
CS: It’s a student population that’s very interested and excited about learning and engaging in the topic. Many of them come from countries where there is a lack of natural resources, connected to energy or water scarcities. So they might have already done programs when they were in high school or at universities back in their home countries. But then you have the other spectrum of students who are coming from countries where they receive subsidies from the government for energy, for gas, or for other resources. Like here in Qatar and other countries in this region, where citizens might not be paying for electricity or water.
PVGC: Yes, that doesn’t provide as much of an economic incentive for conservation. I noticed online that gas costs about $0.70 USD/gallon.
PVGC: You are currently participating in RecycleMania. This is year two for Education City?
PVGC: So, how are you doing?
CS: We’re doing well. I’m waiting to see the compiled results so far for this week. Last year, the only recycling containers that we had were on the ground floors of the buildings. So students had to separate in their own unique way in their apartments. But this year we provided individual containers for each apartment. We’ve already observed that that has been a pretty good success. Our recycling bins on the ground floor are overflowing and we need to adapt to that. I think we’re going to do much better than we did last year.
PVGC: It seems significant to me that Education City in Qatar would be one of the only non-US, Non-Canada institutions participating in RecycleMania. What is it about Qatar or about EC that makes you more progressive on this front? Or is it that you are more engaged in US-based activities around sustainability issues?
CS: Our whole campus is very progressive and very innovative in terms of education. What is happening here is an amazing initiative that was started in 1995 by the ruler of this country, his Highness the Emir. And at every step of the way we’re trying to be innovative with different elements. In student affairs, we wanted to make sure that every step of the way of the students’ experience living here in EC had to do with various elements. And one of those elements was sustainability.
Also, of the universities that are here, six of those are US-based. And that pushes us to be in connection and in contact with what’s happening in the US. For many of these [campus sustainability] initiatives, the US is the prime spot where most of these efforts are happening.
PVGC: You have some new residence halls, actually, that have just opened that have a particular emphasis on sustainability. Is that a direction that EC will be going in the future with all its buildings, or is that more of an isolated project?
CS: The sustainability learning community involves two villas housing 16 students each. The students there participate in activities, they go on field trips, we have faculty members come in and teach, they also blog about the topic.
At the same time, we are now building 12 new residence halls, which will be designed to achieve LEED Platinum. Right now we’re about halfway done. We hope to have students living there by August 2012. Once these are complete, we believe it will be the largest collection of LEED-Platinum buildings in one place anywhere in the world. Each building is being certified separately.
PVGC: To what extent is LEED a relevant benchmarking system in a desert environment?
CS: When we first designed these residence halls in 2007 and 2008, there were no other [green building] standards available for the region. BREEAM from the UK still did not have their Middle Eastern standard called QSAS (Qatar Sustainability Assessment System). So LEED was the only one that we could use.
PVGC: I was reading about QSAS and I noticed that there are even categories for “green mosques” in that system. Have you ever visited a green mosque?
CS: I’ve never visited a QSAS certified green mosque. But I have visited mosques that claim to have several [green building] elements that have to do with water and energy efficiency. There’s actually a professor at the American University of Sharjah who talks about the various elements related to energy and water efficiency especially as they relate to the ablution [ritual washing] stations. There’s a lot of water savings that can happen there.
PVGC: How are values and particular teachings of Islam invoked in sustainability work among students, faculty and staff in the Gulf region?
CS: At our Georgetown campus there is a noteworthy professor who studies water issues in the region who uses a book in his class called “Environmentalism in Islam” which I’m reading right now. We’ve also had conversations here about encouraging more interfaith dialogue on campus. And one of the main topics, if not the number one issue that brings people to talk about interfaith dialogue is environmental issues, because most religions have a high regard for the environment.
PVGC: Chris, what was your own journey to working on sustainability issues?
CS: I’m originally from Brazil. I lived in Brazil for seventeen years and I grew up in a city called Curitiba – I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it?
PVGC: Oh yes, I’ve heard of it. Kind of a model sustainable city in some ways, right?
CS: Yes, exactly. So I grew up thinking and breathing sustainability and recycling – I think that I was five when we started our recycling initiatives there which was already single stream recycling. Curitiba has a great transportation system; some claim it’s the best transportation system in South America and perhaps one of the best in the world still. My father is a forestry engineer, an environmental engineer for the Brazilian government. I grew up going to national parks and always thinking about nature.
Then I ended up going to the US for college, I studied there for my Bachelors and Masters, focusing on student services. When I finished my Masters at the University of Nebraska, I was interested in going to another country. After having lived 17 years in Brazil, and seven in the US, I said, “Well, what’s the next place?” I was reading about the efforts happening in the Gulf region toward education and I said, “This is the place. So many people are saying bad things about this place, but I think there are a lot of positive things happening there.”
For my first three years here at EC, my sole focus was in working with a team of other staff members to build the student-housing program. And at that time, we got very involved in the design of the new LEED residence halls. That sparked my reconnection with the environmental movement and with sustainability. I began trying to implement a few different things: energy measurement, reduction competitions, RecycleMania. Then I wrote myself a job description for a sustainability education coordinator and it was approved. So here I am today.
PVGC: That’s great. You actually hear that story in some form from a good number of sustainability officers, who started working on these projects before they were officially recognized. I know that was what it was like for me at Ohio University.
What do you think the US-based colleges and universities have to learn from the case of EC in particular?
CS: Wow, that’s a good question. On a campus where you have several different universities, I think that some great collaborations that can happen. Also, when you have people from many different countries and cultures, speaking different languages, sustainability can be used as a unifying element – similar to what I was saying earlier in regards to interfaith issues.
Something that we do here right now is we have all the students from all the different universities living in the same housing complex. In the US, you might have four or five different universities in the same area, but each one of them has their own student housing which typically leads to more energy use, more staffing. So I think this is something that could be shared.
In so many ways, we are not as developed as US campuses are in terms of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions or their EcoRep programs or RecycleMania. But I do think that we are connecting all these different universities using the sustainability movement and I think this is something that can be replicated in the US as a means to save costs, to save energy.
PVGC: Assuming that other people in the Gulf region see this interview and wonder about getting their own sustainability efforts going, whether they are formal or informal, what advice would you give them about those very early stages?
CS: I would say try not to copy models exactly from other places and countries outside the region. For example, one of the things that happened on campuses in the US is that the first leverage point was energy savings and financial savings. That helped grow the [sustainability] budget, so that you could have more efforts. Here in Qatar, and in many countries in the region, government organizations don’t pay for electricity. However, education and engagement of students – that’s a big leverage here. The students love that, and the administration loves that. So you have to adapt your initiatives to fit the culture of the institution that you are working for.
The other thing to remember is that you always have to be building the relationships with people before you launch any programs. Within the region, relationships are absolutely the key element in everything that you do.
PVGC: Are political critiques kind of taboo when it comes to sustainability discussions in Qatar?
CS: Discussions on this topic occur in various circles. Perhaps the way that those discussions occur is different than the way that they might happen in other countries with different cultures. Here in Education City, we talk openly about fossil fuels because the basis of this place is about creating a knowledge-based society, which will be ready when the fossil fuel revenues run out. Criticism or commenting on the government may happen in a different way, but it does happen.
PVGC: So you wouldn’t necessarily see a student protest on your campus outside the President’s office.
CS: No, that typically has not occurred here. And it’s not typical of this culture. What you might see is specific venues for those discussions. Here at Carnegie Mellon University, they have a program called Pizza and Politics that occurs every month. There they might discuss, for example, “Fossil Fuels and Sustainability in Qatar – Is It Possible to Have Both?” Also, there’s a TV show that is filmed here almost every month called “Doha Debates” that is presented by BBC World. There you might have very heated debates on various topics, related to women’s rights, political issues in the region, issues with Israel and the Arab world, etc.
PVGC: One last question – you recently posted information about a new summer internship in your sustainability office. Is that application process still open?
CS: We’ve actually completed interviews and selected a candidate who will be coming from the University of Arizona.
PVGC: Chris, I wish you lots of good luck with your initiatives going forward.
CS: Thanks. I hope that we can serve as a model for other schools in the region that might not yet have the resources or the staff to engage in this topic.