The environment is hot, figuratively, and some fear, literally as well. Last February, an international panel of 1,000 scientists concluded unequivocally that humans are responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the earth’s climate and could eventually trigger catastrophic global weather changes.
Since the problem is global, environmentalists say finding a solution must also be a worldwide undertaking. But first, people must act locally, and in this context, one college at a time. One group of college administrators is leading the charge, helping colleges and universities take steps to “equip society to re-stabilize the earth’s climate.”
The nonprofit American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment currently has more than 150 signatories, each pledging to help eliminate their campuses’ greenhouse gas emissions over time and to integrate sustainability into their curriculums. The group’s goal is to have 1,000 or more presidents sign the commitment by 2009. As part of the commitment, institutions must complete an emissions inventory and set a target date and milestone markers for becoming climate neutral within two years.
Dr. Anthony Cortese, co-director of the Climate Commitment program and co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, says higher education is a major force in leading environmental change. In fact, it’s a $317 billion-a-year industry that employs millions of people and spends billions of dollars annually on fuel, energy and infrastructure. ACUP signatories say they hope their efforts will send a message to students that they must take responsibility for maintaining the environment.
“If higher education is not relevant to solving the crisis of global warming, it is not relevant, period,” says David Hales, president of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and an ACUP member.
The growing support of the Climate Commitment is just one indicator that eco-consciousness is being taken seriously by college leadership. By joining the commitment, available at www.presi dentsclimatecommitment.org, the presidents promise to cut carbon emissions, make new campus construction green, install wind, solar and geothermal power systems and encourage better transit systems, among other things.
“If every U.S. campus used 100 percent clean energy, it would nearly quadruple our current renewable electricity demand, create thousands of new jobs, support emerging green industries and speed the availability of innovative financing options,” says ACUP’s report on the commitment.
Leading By Example
Cape Cod Community College, in West Barnstable, Mass., is located in a region long sensitive to environmental issues. As a summer tourist destination, Cape Cod’s economy largely depends on preserving its natural beauty.
For years, the college has had an environmental program to improve conditions at nearby Otis Air Force Base, but only recently did the administration realize that change also needed to come from within.
“Students and faculty began to say we should walk the talk,’ says CCCC President Kathleen Schatzberg, whose college-bought car is the popular Toyota Prius hybrid.
According to Schatzberg, the electricity bills were “killing’ the college. So in 1999, they decided to turn to hydrogen power. The fuel cell cost $1 million to install, but the performance contract promised that the installation costs would be covered by the money the school saved on its energy bill. Although the cell was expected to last 20 years, it died after five. Thanks to the contract, the school wasn’t left holding the bill. Because of that safety net, Schatzberg says she doesn’t consider the experiment a failure.
“We had hoped for 20 years. But we realized that there’s a need to find places to try this stuff out – a stage between research development and mass market,’ she says.
The college is still working on ways to cut costs and protect the environment. They are in the process of installing a wind turbine, which turns the kinetic energy in wind into energy that can power machines. In addition, the college also intends to stop excessive mowing on campus, which Schatzberg says wastes fuel. Instead, CCCC will let the Cape’s natural fauna grow. Because students are directly involved in all the initiatives, she calls the projects a win-win educationally for the college, even if it means only that students learn first hand what doesn’t work in this pioneering industry.
Dr. Michael M. Crow, a co-founder of ACUP and president of Arizona State University, says he hopes eco-friendly changes will be-gin in his own backyard. He is encouraging the use of mass transit for students by making it free or discounted, and he has assembled a group of economists and public policy and engineering faculty to devise new eco-conscious improvements. Last year, ASU hosted the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s conference, during which the university announced a new School of Sustainability which will offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in sustainability.
One sign of environmental progress further east, at North Carolina State University, is the cleanup of Rocky Branch Creek. The creek, which runs through campus, was declared North Carolina’s most polluted urban stream in 1978. But by 1995, a campus team had raised $4 million through state and federal programs to restore the creek. The university is now halfway through the three-phase project. NC State has also created a campus environmental sustainability assessment, produced through the cooperation of several campus groups, which includes plans to strengthen the current environmental studies major and to protect the campus.
Colleges and universities have a huge role to play, says Cortese, regardless of how small the changes may seem. For instance, the new toilet handles Harvard University recently installed to help conserve water can create a ripple effect that extends beyond the Cambridge, Mass., campus. Other eco-friendly options include switching to energy-efficient light bulbs and stocking cafeterias with food from local organic farms. Harvard also offers a Green Loan Fund, an interest-free revolving fund that provides capital for on-campus projects that reduce pollution, resource and energy consumption. The funds are paid back with energy efficiency savings. A recent example includes the installation of motion-sensitive lights in Harvard’s classrooms.
Environmentally Conscious Implementation
While the ACUP Climate Commitment offers a blueprint for environmental protection on campus, what it’s really about is raising awareness and motivating colleges to put the time and resources into designing a master plan – however that plan may look. Schatzberg says that, once motivated, presidents usually realize that making environmentally conscious changes is not only the right thing to do, but also the most financially savvy. There is also a burgeoning movement afoot to give national certification to environmentally safe projects.
The U.S. Green Building Council offers a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certificate, which colleges earn by developing buildings that meet the council’s environmental standards.
Presidents interested in seeing what other colleges are doing can visit the council’s Web site, www.usgbc.org, which offers a list of best practices. Among the projects on the Web site is Cornell University’s Alice H. Cook House, the first LEED-certified residence hall in New York State. The building, constructed in 2004 and LEED-approved in 2005, features recycled steel, among other innovations. Native plants were used in landscaping, not only restoring native habitats but eliminating the need for routine irrigation. And housekeeping staff at the residence hall use only minimally toxic chemicals to clean the building. The dorm is also near two bus routes, allowing public transportation.
Atlanta’s Spelman College will be the first historically Black college to build a LEED-certified residence hall. Breaking ground last fall, the hall is expected to be occupied by July 2008. “It’s going to be very mod. It’s going to have a lot of glass. The building materials are recycled, there are no toxic materials,’ said Spelman spokeswoman
“The very future of our planet is at stake,’ said Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum at the groundbreaking. “I believe we have an obligation to increase our own environmental responsibility at Spelman and to educate students about it.’
Being green doesn’t necessarily require a huge endowment or excessive spending. Sometimes, it just takes creativity and vision, says Schatzberg of Cape Cod Community College.
“Now that all the public is talking about global warming, we feel proud of ourselves here Ñ we are the vanguard,’ she says, adding that she’s excited about how the changes are affecting the college’s students.
“We’re changing their world view, how they live their lives, their willingness to recycle, what they expect of the government and their future employers,’ she says. “So we’re changing hearts and minds. It’s like a snowball rolling down the hill.”
Colleges Doing Their Part*
Michigan State University, the University of Iowa, the University of Minnesota and the University of Oklahoma have joined the Chicago Climate Exchange, North America’s only legally binding greenhouse gas emission registry, reduction and trading system. Initiated in 2003, this commits the universities to either reduce their greenhouse gas emissions each year or buy carbon offsets from another member to bring them into compliance with CCX’s membership terms. As member institutions lower their emissions, they could see a profit from the sale of their emission allowance through the CCX.
Students at the University of Colorado-Boulder voted to increase student fees by $1 per semester to purchase the entire output of a 2 million kilowatt hour per year wind turbine. They later voted to expand the purchase to 8.8 million kWh/year, reducing annual carbon dioxide emissions by 12 million pounds.
Mount Wachusett Community College (Mass.) converted its electric heating system to a biomass hydronic district heating system in 2002. The reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 23 percent over four years saved $300,000 in annual fuel costs.
Napa Valley College (Calif.) installed a 1.2 megawatt photovoltaic solar array on its campus in February 2006, saving $300,000 annually on electric bills.
The State University of New York at Buffalo has a variety of green programs, including a 2003 “You have the power’ campaign that asked all students and administrators to turn off equipment and lights that weren’t in use for one day. They saved $11,000 that day. The campus estimates they save $10 million annually because of energy-saving programs.
*Not meant to be an exhaustive list
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