After months of seeking early supporters, those behind a higher education campaign to combat global warming announced Tuesday at a national kickoff event that more than 280 college presidents had signed the pledge.
By adopting the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, campus leaders are agreeing to immediately reduce their greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Since it's unrealistic for colleges now to promise ceasing all harmful gas production in the future without knowing what technologies will exist in 10 or 20 years, the short-term goal of the initiative is climate neutrality, which means having no net emissions. In other words, colleges could choose to offset any carbon production by purchasing renewable energy sources or credits.
To decrease energy consumption and work toward carbon neutrality, the commitment says colleges should take at least two of five listed actions:
- Adopt green standards for buildings.
- Require Energy Star certification for products produced by the university.
- Reduce air travel or offset emissions by investing in renewable energy sources (wind power, for example.)
- Encourage public transportation.
- Purchase energy from renewable sources and support climate shareholder proposals through their endowment.
Coordinators of the commitment, including the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education; Second Nature, a nonprofit group that promotes sustainability in higher education; and ecoAmerica, a nonprofit that promotes environmental projects, are billing this as the first effort by any sector to set a long-term goal to end greenhouse gas emissions and as the largest campaign by university presidents since World War II.
"Sustainability is at the core of the institutional ethos," said David E. Shi, president of Furman University and one of the earliest signatories. "It's an obvious topic to be passionate about, and this focuses our resources and efforts on one ambitious goal."
It's been a momentous year in general for the green campus movement, with scores of college leaders making their own environmental pledges and students organizing efforts to pay for renewable forms of energy. Since December, Climate Commitment coordinators have sought and received signatures from all types of institutions. The efforts have accelerated since February, when Anthony Cortese, president of Second Nature, celebrated the signature of the 75th college leader.
Specifically, those who sign promise to take inventory of all greenhouse gas emissions within a year and update the list each year thereafter. They also agree to, within two years, develop a plan to become climate neutral and immediately start integrating sustainability education into their curriculum.
It's the job of colleges to monitor and report their own emissions, and Climate Commitment coordinators said it's unlikely that an independent audit would be needed. Cortese said the commitment steering committee is working on guidelines for how colleges should measure emissions.
There is no specific timetable listed for any of the long-term actions, which coordinators of the commitment say allows colleges flexibility. Some college presidents, though, acknowledged that there is some skepticism about colleges being able to follow through on the plan.
Responding to a question about whether the commitment lacks long-term accountability, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University and chair of the commitment's steering committee, said: "It would be that if not for the commitment to climate neutrality and annual reporting. You can hold us to that."
Added Cortese: "Higher education relies heavily on reputation, so the fact that these colleges will be reporting publicly on how they follow through is huge."
Kathleen Schatzberg, president of Cape Cod Community College, said she is pleased to see many two-year colleges adopting the commitment, particularly because many leaders have in the past seen green projects as too costly to adopt. (She said the presidents generally understand now that there is a minimal up-front investment.)
Still, some notable colleges are missing from the list, including Yale University, which has been seen as a leader in the green movement. More than a year ago, the institution pledged to reduce emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Its president, Richard C. Levin, shared his vision of Yale becoming the “greenest university” at the recent World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
Julie Newman, director of Yale’s Office of Sustainability, told Inside Higher Ed early this spring that it’s too soon to tell how the university will be able to meet its goals beyond 2020, and that it doesn't want to make promises it doesn't know it can keep.
“I’m not pushing for Yale to sign this right now, and I’m comfortable with where we are as far as pledges,” Newman said in the interview.
Cortese responded at that time by saying, "if you say you are trying to achieve climate neutrality and do everything you can to do it, no one will criticize you if you are only 80 percent there in 40 years.” He added Tuesday that "everyone who is committed to climate neutrality is signing this -- they are engaged in the action."