Greenhouse-gas emissions at US universities are soaring - largely because of a long-term shift to energy-intensive science and technology, greater deployment of personal computers and demand for air conditioning.
Since 1992, Harvard University's electricity consumption has risen by 40 per cent, use of steam is up by 50 per cent and consumption of chilled water has tripled. In 2003, its emissions equated to 290,000 tons of CO2, 40 per cent higher than in 1990.
Anxiety over universities' environmental record is being made more acute by the increase in utility prices.
Harvard is at the forefront of efforts to curb consumption. Its Harvard Green Campus Initiative (HGCI) begun as an interfaculty endeavour in 1999, has made a dramatic impact in five years. Campus-wide sustainability principles have been approved and a loan fund has invested more than $5.5 million (£3.2 million) in 70 projects, with an average financial return of 30 per cent while achieving an annual 3 per cent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. With an annual operating cost of $1.1 million, the initiative's 13 full-time staff and 40 part-time students have secured annual savings of $5 million and more than 40 million pounds of CO2. The initiative receives 30 per cent of its funding from the central administration but the rest derives from fee income from service partnerships with schools, faculties and central services.
Labs account for about 40 per cent of university utility costs, but changing user habits can have an impact - 80 per cent compliance with a campaign to keep the sashes of fume cabinets closed when not in use would save Harvard more than $80,000 a year.
If all computers in the faculty of arts and sciences were switched off when not in use and if the sleep mode were activated, the potential annual savings could top $300,000.
More than 4,000 Harvard staff, students and faculty have signed a pledge to adopt sustainable environmental practices.
Peter James, co-director of the UK-based Higher Educational Environmental Performance Improvement project, warned that Britain lagged behind the US in building sustainable campuses.
The HEEPI brought Leith Sharp, HGCI's director to the UK to describe the initiative. She told the Scottish section of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges in Edinburgh last week: "If universities cannot deal with this problem and be a collective part of the solution, then who can?"