Global warming is a problem that simply won’t go away. I don’t mean to beat a dead polar bear here, but it’s true — I Googled it. Most people already know the skinny — coal-fired power plants, cars, trucks and Al Gore’s man-bear-pig are all major contributors to global warming. Most also know about ways to decrease our carbon footprint. But there are a vast number of people in the know who fail to take action. It’s almost painful how many times my roommates will vacate a room and leave enough lamps on to light Angel Hall. I’m certainly not without fault here, but the idea of melting icecaps is a thought that often looms in my mind.

It would appear that flyers and apocalyptic news flashes simply don’t grab the public’s attention like they used to. Maybe the spirit of competition is the jump start that University students need to actually do what they know they should be doing. This competitive nature is exactly what the student group Kill-a-Watt is using to try to motivate the campus.

Kill-a-Watt is an idea that was sparked at the University of Central Florida and has been generously loaned to Engineering junior Matt Friedrichs and LSA junior Katie Kent, who are the co-founders of the University of Michigan branch. It’s a campus-wide competition that pits residence hall against residence hall to see who can reduce their energy use by the largest percentage.

This reduction in energy use is reliant on the occupants of the residence halls around campus. Kill-a-Watt is asking students to do the little things that save energy — turn off lights, televisions, laptops, unplug phone chargers not in use, etc. The hope is that the sum of these small efforts will be reflected in the University’s monthly energy bill and, more importantly, our carbon footprint.

The United States is notoriously bad when it comes to carbon emissions. According to Carbon Footprint Ltd, the average American emits about 20 metric tons of carbon per year. This is about 16 metric tons more than people throughout the rest of the world. Even the world’s average carbon footprint is too large to combat climate change. Ideally, average world carbon emissions should be at about 2 metric tons per person — 10 times less carbon than Americans are currently emitting. Ideal goals and realistic goals are drastically different, but the room for improvement is definitely there.

One of the biggest challenges Kill-a-Watt faces is getting a level of participation needed to actually make a difference. “At a school as big Michigan,” Friedrichs wrote in an e-mail, “it is always hard to get a lot of students engaged in an event like this. To overcome this challenge we will combine competition, publicity and incentives to engage students.” Friedrichs explained that the publicity campaigns will go “beyond a sticker on the wall” by tapping into existing networks of resident advisors, the housing staffs and the program Planet Blue to promote the event and remind students of ways to reduce energy.

The hope is to take advantage of the influence that residential advisors carry with their halls. This can be achieved by working the Kill-a-Watt challenge into residence hall meetings or with friendly reminders to turn off lights. Though it doesn’t seem like much, the point of the competition is to show how doing these little things can make a remarkable difference. What could set Kill-a-Watt apart from similar groups is the tangible results it will provide. The percent reduction of total monthly energy use for each residence hall will be reported so students will see the difference they’re making.

Perhaps the greatest asset the group has to offer is the spirit of competition and prospect of prizes. University students live for competition, whether it’s in the classroom or around campus. Sprinkle in a little cash or gift cards and Kill-a-Watt could have a winning combination to become a reputable organization.

Though Kill-a-Watt is still in the production phase, the hope is to begin the 2011 fall semester with this month-long competition. The ultimate goal of reducing our carbon footprint is something that should be admired. With any luck Kill-a-Watt will surpass the scope of the competition and make energy efficient practices a part of the way of life for University students.

Joe Sugiyama can be reached at jmsugi@umich.edu.

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