September 16, 2008

Univ. Climate Plan Sets Nat'l Precedent

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Cornell is making strides towards reaching carbon neutrality and is leading the pack in its endeavor. Yesterday, the University’s first greenhouse gas inventory was announced along with a $425,000 grant that will propel its Climate Action Plan committing the University to climate neutrality by 2050.
The release of Cornell’s climate inventory was among the first crucial steps outlined in the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which expects its 400 signatory institutions to follow suit and release their inventories. As indicated by the data, Cornell is two years ahead of schedule in its commitment.
“The inventory is really a benchmark along a long process,” said Dan Roth, sustainability coordinator at the Office for Environmental Compliance and Sustainability (ECOS). An extensive analysis of the University’s carbon footprint, the inventory takes into account Cornell’s on-site combustion-related gases, purchased electricity, commuting and institution-funded air travel.
According to the inventory, by 2010 Cornell is expected to reduce its carbon emissions to seven percent below where they were in 1990, reaching a major milestone two years before anticipated.
“This is serious now,” said Stan Wrzeski, a sustainable design specialist for Affiliated Engineers, Inc., which was hired by the University to help establish a plan of action. “It’s really exciting to be at a place like Cornell where everyone is very earnest about [sustainability].”[img_assist|nid=31742|title=Green goals|desc=Stan Wrzeski, a representative from Affiliated Engineers, Inc., presents Cornell’s approach to climate neutrality.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
In accordance with the ACUPCC agreement, which President David Skorton signed in February 2007, Cornell now has a deadline of Sept. 15, 2009 by which it must develop a concrete timetable for achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050. Over the next year, the President’s Climate Commitment Implementation Committee will be working with AEI under the grant from the New York State Energy and Research and Development Authority to develop the plan.
According to NYSERDA, the $425,000 grant to Cornell is the largest of its kind given through the FlexTech program, which contracts with engineering programs to develop energy-efficient plans for companies nationwide. According to Jamie Richie, a senior project manager from NYSERDA, other institutions have approached NYSERDA for similar grants, but Cornell is currently the only university they are working with.
“We are really excited,” Richie said. “We are really hoping to utilize the lessons learned [at Cornell] to help other universities complete climate action plans.”
Dean Koyanagi ’90, the University’s sustainability coordinator agreed, asserting that one of Cornell’s goals will be to devise a plan that will help other schools further their commitments to sustainability.
“The challenge is finding a plan that is transferable to other schools,” Koyanagi said.
Wrzeski recognized many challenges Cornell will have to confront planning for carbon neutrality. First, he acknowledged Cornell’s size to be a main factor in its climate action plan.
“It’s a lot easier to do at smaller schools because energy is much smaller,” he said. “Here, we essentially have a city.”
According to Wrzeski, Cornell’s approach to its Climate Action Plan is unique as it plans to internally adjust the way the University functions rather than by simply offsetting its carbon emissions.
“A lot of the universities that are claiming neutrality are buying their way out of it. Cornell wants to do it internally, which is a truly sustainable approach,” he said. “It’s a very admirable and aggressive process.”
Wrzeski said that Cornell will have to lead the way down an unparalleled path toward climate neutrality.
“If someone is looking at precedent for how to go about doing this, there is none,” Wrzeski said. “This is unprecedented.”
AEI, along with Energy Strategies Inc. and Matin/Alexiou/Bryson, PLLC, will be focusing on what Wrzeski described as the “triple bottom line,” focusing on economic, environmental and social issues. The three-pronged approach, according to Wrzeski, is interwoven with Cornell’s institutional criteria.
“Everyone is working from different angles,” said Steve Beyers, a services team leader at ECOS. “When the goal is zero you can’t just brush off ideas … No one else has a solution.”
The team has devised a schedule for the next year and has set deadlines for developing its timetable by next September. Starting now and continuing through December, the team will be screening the potential ideas that are currently on the table. Through the holiday season, they will shorten the list of possibilities and will propose a program portfolio. By June, the team will complete a draft of its Climate Action Plan.
Wrzeski emphasized that he wishes for the process to be publicly transparent and encouraged members of the community to contribute ideas. He acknowledged that it is up to current college students to educate generations of their predecessors about the importance of sustainability.
Roth agreed, stressing the vital role students have played in Cornell’s commitment to sustainability.
“Students have [played] a really big role,” he said. “If we had gone the last 10 years without initiatives, we would be on a [different] path.”