Several years ago, nobody would have foreseen Al Gore winning an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize in the same year. The fact that he has shows what a hot topic climate change is.
Britain's further education colleges have yet to win that level of fame, but many are slowly putting into place the education infrastructure for a greener Britain. Last month, the Association of Colleges organised a shindig to celebrate all things green in further education. Many colleges are looking to introduce environmental courses, for individuals and businesses, that can help them work out the damage they are doing to the environment and ways to ameliorate it.
Park Lane College in Leeds introduced its "reduce your carbon footprint" course in the spring. The 10-week evening class teaches students the basics of living environmentally virtuous lives, from explanations of what carbon is, to the science behind climate change and practical measures to reduce the damage.
Other colleges are reaching out to businesses in their area. City College Plymouth offers courses to show how green practices can mean cash benefits. Colleges are discovering for themselves the savings they can make. From next year, Duchy College, part of Cornwall College, will run its transport on oil seed rape grown on college grounds, saving £400 a week in fuel costs.
Two colleges, Lowestoft and Bedford, lead the way in providing professional training with an environmental slant. Bedford College works on environmental sustainability for housing and transport. Courses cater for teenagers entering the business and old hands learning new tricks.
Off the curriculum, too, colleges have been practising what they preach. Walford and North Shropshire College opened its new Harris Centre last month. More than half the college's teaching takes place in the £2.7m centre, which has been designed to be as carbon-efficient as possible, with a wind turbine and photovoltaic cells providing electricity and ground source heat pumps providing heating. The centre teaches mostly land-based courses. "When delivering those types of skills, you have to be aware of your impact on the environment," says Jon Parry, director of Walford and North Shropshire. "It's not just about teaching, but demonstrating those skills."
The jewel in the crown of sustainable college building has to be Somerset College's Genesis Project. The building uses an array of environmentally friendly materials and processes, from straw bales in the Straw Pavilion, through rammed earth walls in the Earth Pavilion, to recycled yogurt pots in the Water Pavilion – for the lavatories.
The building was largely funded by the South West Regional Development Agency, looking to provide a model for the building industry. "Part of it was to show the building community that an eco-building needn't look like a mud hut," says Jo Matthews, deputy principal at the college.
Somerset has quickly become something of an environmental hub, with visitors from the US and Holland, businesses hiring the centre to draw inspiration from the eco-friendly vibe, and a course later this month for educators on climate change. "It's been a catalyst," Matthews says.