March 21, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Bringing Cornell Together To Make Progress Toward Carbon Neutrality

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In recent months, many campus conversations have focused on Cornell’s commitment to adopt 2035 as the end date for achieving carbon neutrality on the Ithaca campus. The degree of interest in our progress, spurred by strong direction from Cornell’s shared governance groups, shows that fostering sustainability remains a powerful realization of our core value to develop and disseminate knowledge that helps solve the world’s most complex problems.

Cornell is dedicated to leading in the research and educational efforts to combat climate change, and our campus serves as a living laboratory to create, test and demonstrate solutions to the global crisis. Cornell has a superb history in making bold investments in sustainability, most notably our lake source cooling system, which operates with a fraction of the electricity use and environmental impact of traditional systems, and our recent commitment to renewable energy via geothermal heat and solar panels on Roosevelt Island. Because of creative, collaborative approaches to energy generation and conservation, our Ithaca campus has seen a 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions since 2008, and no increase in building energy usage since 2000, despite a 20 percent growth in square footage. We added solar panels to the rooftops of two campus buildings over the last three months, and we have shaped fresh approaches to harnessing solar energy through our two new solar farms. We also continue to pursue hydropower, wind and other renewable energy sources to meet our campus electricity needs. Our institutional commitment to sustainability is a signature of who we are as an academic community.

In 2007, we set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050. That date inspired the award-winning Climate Action Plan and galvanized support across campus. In 2013, following resolutions from campus governance groups, the Acceleration Working Group (AWG) was formed to develop recommendations to support the goal of 2035. The AWG provided us with an excellent blueprint, yet the report relies extensively on a strategy of deep geothermal heat production; while extraordinarily promising, this approach has not been pursued in our region and remains one of uncertain costs and ultimate feasibility. If we are to achieve the goal of carbon neutrality by 2035, we need a plan that does not rely on a single, unproven technology, but rather incorporates multiple strategies.

The Senior Leaders Climate Action Group (SLCAG), which includes students, faculty and staff, is charged with prioritizing initiatives to help Cornell become carbon neutral. Today Provost and Acting President Kotlikoff has asked the SLCAG to report back to him by Sept. 1 with a menu of options and associated costs for achieving carbon neutrality by 2035. This information will help us to assess the relative costs and benefits of our choices in the context of our academic mission and our role as an international thought leader. A plan that includes a financial and feasibility analysis will provide all of us with the confidence that we will be successful in achieving our carbon neutrality target of 2035¹.

In addition to Cornell’s institutional goal, we should also pursue local efforts as a university community, and a regional partner, to promote reduction of reliance on fossil fuels by our faculty, staff, students, and neighbors. For this reason, the SLCAG group has also been asked to propose initiatives that engage our university and surrounding communities in the reduction of carbon emissions.

Broadening the menu of options to achieve carbon neutrality does not indicate a reduction in our efforts to explore deep geothermal technology. Earth source heat could enable us to greatly reduce Cornell’s dependence on fossil fuels and, if successful, would serve as an exciting demonstration project for other communities seeking renewable, sustainable forms of energy. We will continue to explore earth source heat’s potential from both a technological and cost perspective, but will also look to the SLCAG report to highlight other carbon footprint reducing options.   

In the interim, Cornell will continue to advance campus sustainability efforts, guided by the President’s Sustainable Campus Committee, advocate for advances in public policy on climate change and generate solutions across a spectrum of climate-related issues. We call on our faculty, students and staff to work together with flexibility and creativity, across our disciplines and programs, as we address this global challenge.

¹Provost Kotlikoff had an opportunity to discuss this with President Garrett several weeks ago, who enthusiastically endorsed this approach.

Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff is the Acting President. Elizabeth Chi ’18 is a member of KyotoNow. Professor David Shalloway is a member of Shared Governance Resolution Sponsors. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.