Clear Water, Green Campus: Hong Kong UST
Air conditioning junkies might do well to avoid the residence halls at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST); rooms are individually metered and students are charged back based on the number of hours a day the cooling system is in use. In light of that, campus sustainability professionals might not be surprised to learn that complaints have been rolling in.
“They want to be charged by the kilowatt hour, not by the time,” explained Jasper Chan, recent HKUST grad and coordinator of sustainability education efforts within Student Affairs. “Charging by the time encourages students to put the air con on ‘high’ and that wastes energy.” Green-minded students concerned about the issue have recently mounted an organized campaign for a new metering system that would reward users who knew how to stretch a kWh. Administrators are happily taking note.
“These last two years, we really see students saying, ‘I want to have the electricity cut off’ or wanting to see the new parts of our campus have an electricity monitoring system,” said Sandy Lau, project assistant in the Office of Sustainability. “So we see complaints, but we also see demand from the students because they understand the concepts. We are really glad and proud of that.”
HKUST has quite a lot to be proud of in the area of campus sustainability:
- The university has an active Environmental Sustainability Steering Committee (ESSCom), tasked with providing high-level guidance and support;
- Dedicated sustainability staff members have initiated a wide range of outreach activities including the Green Ambassadors program as well as Live Green!, a sustainability-focused living and learning community;
- All existing and planned campus buildings adhere to HK-BEAM, a green building standard specific to Hong Kong;
- A newly launched Division of Environment offers a BSc and MSc in Environmental Management and Technology, and MPhil and PhD in Atmospheric/Marine Environmental Science;
- HKUST recently hosted Asia’s first carbon neutral congregation to celebrate new graduates.
Backdrop: Beauty and the Beast
Providing the spectacular frame for their initiatives is a picture perfect ocean-side campus, surrounded by thousands of acres of protected open space and the turquoise waters of Clearwater Bay. It’s easy to forget while taking in the breathtaking views that only a few kilometers away lies one of the largest, most densely populated and most polluted megacities in the world.
Dr. Alexis Lau plays a central role in HKUST’s efforts to green the university and the surrounding communities. He serves as an associate professor in the Division for the Environment and Co-Chair of the Environmental Sustainability Steering Committee (ESSCom). Lau laughs playfully when asked whether Hong Kong could be considered a model sustainable city.
“No. Not quite yet.”
In the past, government bodies have made a few halting steps toward sustainability-based planning, particularly in regards to the integration of relevant modules in K-12 classrooms. And certain aspects of their existing infrastructure, such as the public transportation system, are second to none. But officials claim that a lack of unified and consistent public support for sustainability projects has prevented them from going any further. According to Lau, that argument won’t get much traction in the years ahead.
“With the changes in the environmental education over the past few years, the government will soon find it harder to say that they can’t do things because there is no consensus in Hong Kong society. There will be much more acute demand for improving the air, improving our water, improving our waste management.”
Indeed, the government has been leveraging Lau and other faculty members’ expertise through HKUST’s Institute for the Environment (IENV) to address these very issues. IENV was Hong Kong’s first interdisciplinary “think tank” on environmental issues, housing the work of faculty members from all four of HKUST’s Schools – Science, Engineering, Business & Management, and Humanities and Social Science.
The Institute is also notably home to the HKUST Office of Sustainability, staffed by Calvin Kwan, sustainability manager, and Sandy Lau, project assistant. The establishment of this dedicated coordination unit has allowed the university to catalyze and accelerate sustainability advances much closer to home.
Building a Culture of Sustainability
March is Earth Month at HKUST, and that means green tours of the campus and community, extra veggie dishes in the canteens, green job fairs, free reusable mugs and meal boxes, as well as opportunities to get down and dirty at the campus’ community vegetable garden. The Green Ambassadors have organized an “Organic Fun Day” which will include games, an organic soap making demo, organic food cooking classes and sampling, organic veggie and fruit pickling, and organic wine tasting.
Extra-curricular activities such as these are providing an outlet for students, faculty and staff to engage proactively in greening up their lifestyles and work places. Applicants to HKUST’s Live Green! learning community are on the rise and the wait list for plots at the vegetable garden is long. Underlying this surge in interest, according to Professor Joseph Kwan, are deep-seated concerns about environmental pollution and degradation. Kwan is the director of HKUST’s Health, Safety & Environment Office and Co-Chair of ESSCom.
“In general, every year, people are experiencing extremes of weather conditions. Either much colder or much warmer, and lots of typhoons and tornadoes. It’s something that everybody feels.”
First-hand exposure to climate “weirding” may indeed be driving HKUST students’ adoption of greener lifestyles. But they increasingly also enter the university with a commitment to advancing green technologies through their studies and their careers.
Green Tech in Action
All over campus, evidence of HKUST’s focus on innovation in science and technology is in view. Front line facilities staff members install LED lamps in outdoor fixtures, while dining hall workers dutifully sort organic waste into the in-vessel composting machine. The campus is graced with solar and wind powered streetlights, motion sensor activated escalators, a solar thermal water heating system, as well as an interesting micro-scale green roof experiment at one of the residence halls. Many of these projects are student-led or student-initiated.
Once upon a time, environmental projects on campus were limited to those that addressed regulatory compliance, or that focused directly on health and safety, particularly in regards to the research labs.
In 1999 however, HKUST pioneered the use of performance contracting in Hong Kong as a means to finance energy savings projects. To date, HK$5 million in energy costs have been avoided as a result with another HK$2.3 million accruing annually, and many other area institutions have followed suit. The project established HKUST in a leadership role, and administrators used this success as a foundation for further sustainability initiatives.
While HKUST has yet to commit to specific environmental targets, calls to do so are coming in loud and strong, notably from ESSCom. The campus’ student population is projected to increase in the years ahead, and sustainability advocates will need to work hard to keep the university’s ecological footprint in check.
Spirit of Innovation
HKUST, founded in 1991, is a young, forward-looking university with an optimistic worldview. Indeed, the university’s Sustainability Strategy envisions the creation of a “sustainability innovation system” on campus, which will drive change both inside and outside its gates.
Mainland China is just a short drive away from central Hong Kong, and many mainland students are now studying at HKUST. Administrators see China’s economic rise as well as its consequent environmental degradation as an important driver of their sustainability efforts.
As the Sustainability Strategy explains, “The environmental crisis in China is so vast and the need for leadership is so great that we can provide a model with unprecedented potential for impact.”
An upcoming switch from a 3-year to a 4-year curriculum will provide many departments across campus with an ideal opportunity to weave sustainability topics into new syllabi. Professor Lau predicts that by the time the new courses are implemented, most if not all HKUST students with leave the university with some exposure to sustainability concepts.
Both Professor Kwan and his colleague Professor Lau agree that a sustainability-focused campus culture will heighten and enhance the curricular offerings.
“On the cultural side, we both believe that at the end it’s that cultural change that will make us successful or fail,” asserts Lau. “It’s not just what we taught.” Kwan responds, “It’s something they can take with, and practice through their entire lives.”
Visit green.ust.hk or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about sustainability at HKUST.