February 16, 2010

Cornell Looks Ahead To Greener Future

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Sustainability has become one of the University’s largest ongoing initiatives as it works to uphold its Climate Action Plan in pursuit of a carbon neutral campus. Student groups such as KyotoNOW!, the Sustainability Hub and the University’s Center for a Sustainable Future are working to increase campus involvement and uphold Cornell’s green initiatives. With significant climate changes possible by the end of the century, students and faculty say actions must be taken now to reduce the University’s carbon emissions and increase sustainable policies.

Cornell’s Climate Action Plan, a project striving for carbon neutrality by 2050, was initiated in 2007 when President Skorton signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. Although the plan is “probably… a more realistic climate action plan than other universities that have made commitments,” Prof. Charles Greene, earth and atmospheric sciences, said, it is “not ambitious enough.”

According to Prof. Frank DiSalvo, chemistry and chemical biology, the Climate Action plan is “likely [to be successful] at a place like Cornell, because we have all of these resources … If Cornell can’t get to carbon neutrality, [then] most universities don’t have a chance.”

Greene cited the short amount of time in which the consequences of global climate change can be reversed.

“We have a very narrow window of time to find solutions to the global climate change problem before we’re locked into dangerous climate change that’s largely irreversible,” Greene said.

Geo-engineering ideas for reducing global climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere range from injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to fertilizing the earth’s oceans to promote algal biofuel production. Greene is currently researching the latter through Cellana, a project funded by the Royal Dutch Shell Company.

“One of the benefits for creating biofuels from algae rather than corn and ethanol and sugarcane is that algae are at least 10 times more productive than the terrestrial crops,” Greene said.

By burning algae in power plants to harness its biofuels and biomass, according to Greene, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be used and recycled, becoming carbon neutral and possibly even carbon negative in the future.

With a power plant that currently burns natural gas, Cornell could potentially burn biomass in that same plant in the future, Greene said.

“I want [the University to find a way] to burn biomass in a way so that we can [use] the power plant here to shoot for carbon negativity, so Cornell can be carbon neutral without buying offsets. We should do this by 2030,” Greene said.

If Cornell is to become carbon neutral by 2030, campus involvement must increase. Currently, efforts to spread awareness and to make advances in sustainable engineering are underway.

The Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future was established in 2007 to focus on energy, environment and economic development at the University.

“[We look primarily into] sustainability research, how to make broad collaborations to seek synergies to start new sustainability and to connect all of that to external partners who can help implement things in the world,” Prof. Frank DiSalvo, chemistry and chemical biology and director of CCSF, said.

CCSF funds activities and research programs. More than 300 faculty members and many graduate students from almost every college in the University are involved in the projects.

“We have already funded 17 activities, 12 research teams and five workshops,” DiSalvo said.

One of the programs brings together faculty with a common interest in sustainability during a lunch to discuss various climate topics. So far, there have been 27 topical lunches, each themed with a different sustainable subject. “We facilitate … intellectual collisions [between] people who don’t know how to go about it,” DiSalvo said.

Student groups on campus have also worked to educate Cornellians on sustainability.

The Sustainability Hub works to implement programs that increase visibility. According to K.C. Alvey ‘12, president of the Hub, “there needs to be a lot more visibility about the Climate Action Plan, and that’s one of our main objectives.”

Projects such as Greeks Go Green and Big Red Bikes have helped to both spread knowledge of sustainability around campus and to get students in the habit of living sustainably. Current projects include Take Back the Tap, which promotes reducing bottled water consumption by substituting tap water, and Lights Off Cornell, a program looking to turn off lights in campus buildings at night.

“[We are focused on] green development, energy conservation, sustainable transportation and also just trying to let students know that there are a lot of small changes they can make in their lifestyles that will have a large impact,” Alvey said.

KyotoNOW!, another student sustainability group at Cornell, takes a more political approach.

“We take national issues and bring them on campus,” said Alexandra Lynn Gore ‘12, president of the group.

The club is currently working for advocacy and education surrounding the debate over whether to drill into the Marcellus Shale for natural gas.

“There are radioactive materials [and danger regarding] sand and chemicals used to help facilitate with the drilling … [and there is a] possibility of the broken shale collapsing,” Lucia Von Reusner ‘12 said.

After speaking to Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca) during her Feb. 4 visit to Cornell, the organization decided to focus on spreading awareness regarding the potential dangers of shale drilling.

“The problem is a lot of the leasing contracts that the gas companies are giving to the landowners aren’t clear, so they get stuck in situations,” Gore said.

As the University discusses whether to lease Cornell land for natural gas exploration, KyotoNOW! praises the administration’s precautions in the decision-making process.

“We’re ecstatic because the Cornell administration is on the same page as us in terms of the precautionary actions that we want to take before agreeing to do anything,” Gore said.

“[The University is] expecting behavioral changes within the student body, and if there isn’t enough cultural awareness and change, then it’s not going happen. But I have the expectation that by 2050 that we will be able to achieve it,” Alvey said.

According to Alvey, this is not the time to look to the government to initiate change.

Noting that “nothing substantial has been accomplished by the United Nations in the last 15 years,” Alvey stated that perhaps it is “up to individuals and institutions … to show that we’re interested in change.”

DiSalvo agreed.

“We and the world can clearly do better. The big challenge is to build the political and social will,” DiSalvo stated.

Original Author: Cindy Huynh