May 3, 2010

University Forms New Groups To Coordinate Sustainability Efforts

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The University recently created two new organizations to promote sustainable initiatives on campus and implement its Climate Action Plan, which aims to make Cornell carbon neutral by 2050. The organizations — the President’s Sustainable Campus Committee and the Energy and Sustainability Department — represent a new chapter in the University’s strategy for implementing sustainability on campus.

Until recently, sustainability initiatives were directed by the Office of Environmental Compliance and Sustainability, according to Dan Roth, the sustainability coordinator.

The Energy and Sustainability Department is a new organization within facilities services. It runs and maintains all basic utilities and infrastructure, including power plants, renewable energy on campus, hydropower, solar panels, pipes and wires. It also works on energy management and energy conservation work in buildings. Other projects include working with the existing infrastructure of the University to make it more efficient and working with the people in the buildings to reduce energy use through education, according to Roth.

“Sustainability is integral. The Climate Action Plan requires more renewable energy and more conservation initiatives,” Roth said.

The Sustainability Office works across all different areas. Its main task is to support existing initiatives, such as recycling, dining and water, but it also comes up with new strategies and new programs across Cornell.

On the other hand, it helps to ensure that classes teach sustainability policies, and works with researchers who are looking to demonstrate new approaches to issues.

The University’s second new organization, the President’s Sustainable Campus Committee, is meant to be an ongoing, broad, sustainability committee.

According to Roth, the PSCC comes off of the success of the President’s Climate Commitment Implementation Committee, which oversaw the development of the Climate Action Plan over the past two years.

The PSCC co-chairs are Vice President of Facilities Services Kyu Whang and Prof. Tim Fahey, natural resources. The committee includes representatives from the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, Human Resources, Campus Life and Facilities, as well as a graduate and undergraduate student.

“Coordination of environmental stewardship efforts on campus gained a great deal of momentum through the large investment we made in the preparation of the Climate Action Plan. We need to build immediately upon that work by extending and expanding it in the form of the PSCC. This new committee will coordinate a variety of programs being conducted by students, faculty and staff towards the common end of a more sustainable campus,” Fahey said in an e-mail.

“We want to be the voice of sustainability to the administration and advocate for the things that we ought to and should be doing,” Whang said. “We want to be an oversight group.”

According to Whang, the committe serves two functions.

“One is to make sure the necessary items in the Climate Action Plan are not forgotten about. We want to say focused on getting it up and running in the near future,” Whang said. “The second is to create a group that looks at sustainability more broadly. There are lots of groups around campus. We want the administration of the university to oversee sustainability initiatives across campus.”

According to Roth there are ten different focus areas, which include energy, climate, water, food, purchasing, waste, transportation, buildings, land and people.

“At the meeting we went over the areas to focus on. We want to create sub-teams to assign to different initiatives,” Whang said. “The PSCC will serve as a coordinator. We will identify several areas to work on next year.”

The focus for the summer is to find leaders for working groups in the 10 areas, according to Roth.

“We want to create consistency across the areas. We need to find faculty, staff, and students to be involved,” Roth said. “We have plenty of volunteers. The next step is going to people and asking if they have time to commit to going to meetings on a regular basis. Our work is cut out for us in the short term.”

President David Skorton has requested annual reports to monitor the success of the efforts.

“We started with a baseline of 319,000 metric tons of CO2 per year in annual emissions,” Roth said. The goal for the University in the long-term is to bring this number down to zero.

The new combined heat and power plant brought CO2 emissions down 25 percent, according to Roth. This is a big step forward.

“The closer to zero, the harder it gets,” Roth said. “We know that with energy conservation measures in the next five years, there may be another substantial reduction, although it would require another large-scale project to take off another 25 percent.”

According to Roth, changes in the way the University produces and uses energy can get utilities close to zero, but areas such as transportation are more difficult, so the University needs a plan to offset the emissions.

Some options are to manage the forests to sequester carbon better, or to use local carbon offset programs off campus.

“We chose an approach that is different from other schools,” Roth said. “Some buy offsets off campus and declare themselves carbon neutral. We decided to invest in actually reducing emissions on campus.”

“The big question is: how are we going to make sure that we follow through and keep momentum going?” Roth said.

The first official function of the PSCC was granting the Partners in Sustainability Award to the New York State Energy, Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which co-funded the Climate Action Plan. The NYSERDA has granted $500,000 to the University, helped support the construction of Weill Hall, granted billions to sustainability research across the nation, and has a history of outreach through the Cornell Cooperative Extension.

“It was recognition for years of support during the years,” Whang said. “We hope to give the award annually to groups that have a significant impact on sustainability at Cornell. We hope to do more things like that in the future.”

Original Author: Laura Shepard