With roots in its Ithaca campus’ natural setting and its Climate Action Plan, Cornell University has been named one of the top 20 “Coolest Schools,” or, greenest colleges of 2018 in the Sierra Club’s annual list. The Sierra Club is one of the most prominent environmental advocacy organizations in the country and has been running the “Coolest Schools” awards since 2006.
Cornell scored a 74.7 out of 100 on the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System — an annual survey sent by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education to schools for their community members to self-evaluate.
The public report compiled from the findings quantifies every school’s sustainability based on a number of criteria, including curriculum, campus engagement, food and dining, waste and innovation. According to the Campus Sustainability Office, this is Cornell’s 7th year achieving STARS Gold status, and Cornell has the longest running Gold ranking of any university in the world.
Cornell leaped from #64 on list in 2017 to #20 in 2018. The University has been recognized as a “Cool School” almost every year since the rankings began in 2006, though its place in the lineup has fluctuated.
Some of the key initiatives that the Sierra Club pointed out in their explanation for Cornell’s score are the new Sustainable Landscapes Trail, Anabel’s Grocery store, the Lak e Source Cooling energy system and the in-progress Earth Source Heat energy project.
Since 2000, lake source cooling has transported the deep cold water in Cayuga lake up to campus to cool buildings in the hot summer through a heat exchange process. This process has saved the University millions of dollars and 25 million kilowatt hours of energy over the past 18 years, as stated on the project’s website.
The Earth Source Heating project, which would harness the geothermal energy stored in the rock underneath campus to heat all 608 buildings on campus, has been in development for many years and, if pursued and accomplished, would be an unprecedented feat of engineering and sustainable design.
“[The Sustainable Landscapes Trail] is an interdisciplinary project, our planning department, grounds department and landscape architecture department collaborated with students to design the trail and highlight areas on campus to showcase living laboratory spaces, examples of sustainable landscaping and more,” said Sarah Brylinsky, sustainability communications and integration manager of the Campus Sustainability Office.
Brylinsky emphasized that what sets Cornell apart from other college campuses is that “faculty, staff and students work together to improve sustainability.” She believes “the most innovative things happen when we work together.”
According to the Sustainable Campus Office, the University as a whole has reduced carbon emissions by more than 30 percent since committing to carbon neutrality in 2008. However, student leaders of sustainability clubs across campus believe that this is only the beginning and that the University has a long road ahead before reaching the level of sustainability that the administration lauds.
Cornell Environmental Collaborative is the central coordinating organization of over 40 environmental clubs on campus. According to ECO co-facilitator Elizabeth Couse ’19, the Cornell community is making strides in the right direction, but since committing to a carbon neutrality by 2035 plan in 2008, the administration has so far targeted “low-hanging fruit,” like increasing energy efficiency in older buildings on campus.
“The administration likes to point at graphs and say that we’ve greatly decreased carbon emissions since 2008, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Couse said.
Audrey Stanton ’19, co-president of Society for Natural Resources Club, said Cornell should have the resources and capabilities to achieve more than it does now.
“Cornell has many sustainability-focused initiatives, though there is always room for growth,” Stanton said. “We are capable of achieving carbon neutrality, sourcing our energy from renewable options, investing and supporting consciously and reducing the amount of waste we produce.”
Although all other Ivy League schools have campus-wide sustainability initiatives and environmental clubs, none besides Cornell were honored in the Sierra Club’s Top 20 list. And in the Princeton Review’s top 50 rankings, Cornell’s STARS score also makes it the most sustainable Ivy school despite Cornell’s significantly larger student population and campus size.
In contrast, Brown University has an undergraduate student population of 6,988 and a Princeton Review Green Ranking of #47 out of 50 schools, compared to Cornell’s #8 spot with 14,907 students and 745 acres.
Brylinsky said that one of the major things Cornell students can do to advance sustainability is actually small, such as turning off lights when leaving the room or installing smart plugs. “On a campus this large, they make a difference,” she said.
Couse pointed to fossil fuel divestment, increasing local food sourcing and severing ties with funding corporations like Monsanto and Coca Cola as just some ways to work towards the radical carbon neutrality goal.
When asked how the University can most efficiently work towards the 2035 goal, Couse and Brylinsky mentioned greater collaboration between the administration, faculty and student body.
The President’s Sustainable Campus Committee and the Sustainable Campus Steering Committee is currently updating a Campus Sustainability Plan for 2016-26. The draft is available online for comments for a limited time to the Cornell community until it is finalized and put into action.
The Sierra Club acknowledged in their methodology review that none of the 20 schools in their ranking have reached 100 percent sustainability. “In 2018, the top-rated universities scored a solid B. In higher education, as in the rest of society, there is room for improvement.”
“Sustainability initiatives have always stemmed from the students and community, not the administration. I think that the University needs to improve their partnership between the administration and the students,” Couse said. “Change will not come fast enough if students have to continually push the administration. We need to work together.”