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Cindy Ma / Senior Staff Photographer

River Hall took first place in this year's Energy Challenge among Columbia residence halls.

This week, millions of people across the globe will celebrate the 44th Earth Day and environmentalism by planting trees, cleaning up waste, and reaffirming their commitment to our earth.

At Columbia, it will be just another Tuesday.

Our University's environmental awareness and dedication to a cleaner planet are halfhearted, at best. A blurb on Facilities' website asking students to use a website called Count Down Your Carbon is essentially the only mention of Earth Day from the University this year.

The Office of Environmental Stewardship's main attempt—and, therefore, the main option for students not part of the many environmental groups on campus—to promote sustainability and environmentalism comes once a year in the form of the Energy Challenge. In an interview with Spectator, Assistant Vice President of Environmental Stewardship Jessica Prata called the Energy Challenge “a fun and easy way to create opportunities for participation and education at the individual level.” This year, River Hall won the competition with a 17.1 percent decrease in energy use over the two-week period.

But we are unconvinced that this is evidence of success. Five out of 14 buildings actually increased their energy usage, and the total reduction of energy for all buildings averaged only 4.9 percent. This amounted to a reduction of 20,000 kilowatt-hours, or about 4.5 kWh per person for the entire two week long challenge. To save 4.5 kWh, you need only turn off two bright lightbulbs for a day.

[Related: Sammy Roth investigates Columbia's sustainability efforts]

What does this mean for the Energy Challenge? Frankly, it is hard to really know because there are a number of unknown factors. We don't know what period of time these two weeks are being compared to. If the weather was warmer when the first measurements were made, the overall decrease could have been from lessened heating use, not student effort. And just as importantly, we don't even know whether most students were aware of the challenge, considering five buildings' rise in energy usage.

Even if we as a school were “successful” during the two weeks of the Energy Challenge, these reductions would have been insignificant when compared to the rest of the year. If we're serious about sustainability and the environment (beyond fun and easy solutions), we need to take action for more than two weeks out of an entire year and change our habits. We can keep ourselves responsible by holding the competition over the entire academic year, with multiple updates each semester. It is this sort of long-term effort that has the potential to make a serious dent in our carbon footprint and go beyond lip service to sustainability.

And there is precedent: Other schools succeed not only at being sustainable, but also at engaging their student populations to care and be environmentally conscious. Stanford demonstrates energy and greenhouse gas reductions across the board in comprehensive yearly reports. Brown has multiple annual competitions for energy reduction, and has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent since 2007.

Actively engaging students could be as simple as involving resident advisers in publicizing the competition or partnering with groups like EcoReps or Greenboro to combine competition with education.

Certainly, there are limitations to just how sustainable we can be. A field of solar panels is not exactly feasible in our concrete jungle. But rather than a checklist of generic tips in the dusty corner of a website, we should have a concerted effort to educate students, change their habits, and get them involved with the environment. 

And we can do this. Creating building-specific tips—even adding composters to more buildings—is well within Columbia's power.

Next year, let's challenge ourselves substantially—and not just on April 22.

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sustainability Earth Day Office of Environmental Stewardship columbia facilities green initiatives River Hall Furnald EcoReps composter
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