With an organization as large as BU, few issues reach the level of importance and gravity of what the university uses its extensive resources on, and few organizations have such great an opportunity to positively affect the environment as BU. With an annual operating budget surpassing $1 billion, any choice the administration makes concerning energy consumption or other environmental issues will inevitably leave a large ecological footprint.
Promoting environmental development at BU seems to face a catch-22 situation, however, when money is added to the equation. When the economy is strong and spending is high, people pay more attention to the altruistic benefits of environmental consciousness than the cost-saving aspects of ‘green’ operations. But when the economy falters, as it has recent months, budgets tighten, and suddenly spending extra funds on ‘green’ goods doesn’t seem worth it. Compounding this problem is the fact that fossil fuel prices fall sharply, reducing the appeal of alternative energy sources.
This environmental dilemma is worsened by the fact that once-high energy prices decline when a crisis hits the global economy. Decreased demand in a recession means people burn less fuel in the short term, but it also gives them the illusion that green technologies do not save much money because energy is so cheap.
A startup company can be forgiven for this shortsighted attitude, but a university should not. Many of these environmental products and services exist over a much longer timeframe than the brief fluctuations of the markets. At BU, everything from the light bulbs in Warren Towers to the leaf blowers used to maintain the landscaping around President Robert Brown’s Brookline house will eventually need to be replaced, a regular expense the university factors into its operating budget.
When the BU Shuttle fleet needs replacements, the university should not miss the opportunity to invest in non-gasoline technologies. Busses running on compressed natural gas have been put to good use by the MBTA, and in the long term, will be a much more affordable and cleaner option than diesel. If the university invests in brand-new diesel vehicles, it will be stuck with the technology for decades, even after gasoline prices rebound and the busses become expensive to operate as well as dirty.
It is inevitable that the university will be forced to spend frugally until the economic situation improves. But saving money and helping the environment is not an either-or proposition. Given the university’s recent history of making Earth-saving innovations, it is clear that most initiatives have come at a very low cost, if they cost anything upfront at all. Removing trays from campus dining halls cost nothing and instantly started saving the university money in unused water. The administration should look to find more of these innovations and put them to use.