Cornell University is one of thousands of institutions dedicated to sustainability and carbon neutrality. Not only are the ecological benefits of these missions evident, but they could also mean savings in revenue for the University. According to a comparative analysis by Morgan Stanley Capital Investment, fossil fuel free funds increased 12.56 percent between years 2014 and 2018. This yields a 0.65 percent increase in returns compared to funds that contain fossil fuel equities. For Cornell’s endowment, this increase in returns could produce over $1 billion of asset increases in a span of at least five years.
But besides the untapped economic benefit, Cornell has been a long time leader in climate change research and sustainability. The curriculum and resources allow students and faculty to develop, test and implement solutions to mitigate environmental degradation. According to recent statistics, Cornell University is ranked as the #1 Ivy League institution in sustainability. Additionally, 30 percent of faculty are engaged in sustainability research, 90 percent of dairy products used in dining halls come from local producers, 91 percent of students use sustainable commuting options and there are over 40 student-founded sustainability clubs on campus. In terms of infrastructure, Cornell is also a leader in transitioning to sustainability. There are over 20 LEED certified buildings on campus, 50 green offices certified across campus, and 10 percent of the campus electricity comes from renewable energy.
There are some inconsistencies, however, with Cornell’s efforts to ‘go green.’ Though we may be leaders in sustainability, it doesn’t mean I have never walked into Mann Library and seen a heap of water bottles in the trash bins. I can even walk into Trillium and see food waste in garbage cans right next to composting bins at any time.
In 1985, Cornell launched its first Energy Conservation initiative. In 2001, the University adopted the Kyoto Protocol. Cornell has also implemented two strategic plans to help their climate and sustainability leadership. First is a five year Sustainability Plan for Cornell’s campus and community. This plan includes climate leadership, a sustainable campus, community engagement and a ‘living laboratory.’ The second is a carbon neutrality by 2035 Climate Action Plan — a plan that made Cornell the first Ivy to commit to carbon neutrality. So far, Cornell has reduced their carbon emissions by 36 percent since 2008 and 50 percent since 1990 emission levels. However, based on Cornell’s annual Greenhouse Gas Inventories, the fact that the inventory does not account for upstream emissions is conspicuous. Upstream emissions account for greenhouse gas emissions produced during all industrial activities such as construction, transportation, extraction and processing. So, in reality, since 2008, total greenhouse gas emissions have increased 10-fold to over 600,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide.
The North Campus expansion, which will also add ‘green’ spaces, is another example of Cornell’s questionable sustainability efforts. Students and Ithacans concerned with environmental advocacy are pushing for the University to reconsider their approach to construction.
The project is being designed for LEED Gold certification, meaning the buildings will be made for optimal, efficient performance. But concerns about emissions from upstream methane leakage makes the designation seem elusive. Cornell’s record of reducing carbon emissions by more than 30 percent since 2008 (despite a 20 percent growth in square footage), quickly loses authority when combined with upstream methane emission numbers, which the State Environmental Quality Review requires for full evaluation. LEED certification also doesn’t account for all energy impacts. Based on the current designs as well, the window to wall ratio reflects inefficient insulation and increased energy consumption in the buildings. These larger windows were justified for aesthetic and mental health concerns; however, no student group dedicated to issues of mental health were consulted. Student groups such as Climate Justice Cornell are pushing for the University to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement and improve communication among other things.
Regardless of Cornell’s inactivity in efforts to divest from fossil fuels, there is a strong push from student activists on campus for the University to divest and maintain their promises of sustainability. Moving forward, it is not only important for Cornell to address its upstream emissions, but also for there to be more action to influence the sustainable behavior of the students. The Cornell student body arrives on campus with a range of minimal to exceptional knowledge about sustainable practices, taught to them from their own cultures and communities. Last year, the Student Assembly Environmental Committee urged the University to implement sustainable education (related to composting, recycling, litter prevention, etc.) into orientation for incoming students. This would also include Cornell thermos and water bottle giveaways during orientation week activities. Though these measures are a starting point, Cornell must put more effort into teaching students sustainable practices in order to holistically reach their goal of sustainability.
Aminah Taariq is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at email@example.com. I Spy runs every other Wednesday this semester.