• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Sustainability work #7 - More plotting and planning

So, when all is said and done, what matters is getting Greenback to a position of sustainability. We need to get out of the habit of taking more (of anything) than we put back. We need to learn how to stop creating wastes we don't resorb. We need to get out of what the cyberneticians call "positive feedback loops" because, after a while, the feedback doesn't seem all that positive. We need to find, and model, and pass on to our students a sense of balance, of equilibrium, of stability.

October 22, 2008

So, when all is said and done, what matters is getting Greenback to a position of sustainability. We need to get out of the habit of taking more (of anything) than we put back. We need to learn how to stop creating wastes we don't resorb. We need to get out of what the cyberneticians call "positive feedback loops" because, after a while, the feedback doesn't seem all that positive. We need to find, and model, and pass on to our students a sense of balance, of equilibrium, of stability.

The task is certainly complex. Anyone who says (s)he understands what's involved is a fool, a liar, or both. Attaining a reasonable approximation of ecological balance will require a significant change in paradigm from what we've lived for the past half-century or more. That would be a daunting task even if we had unlimited resources -- which we clearly didn't six weeks ago, and even more clearly don't now. Getting to a stable, healthy economy from the doddering wreck we've made for ourselves would seem quite a challenge even if we could afford to spew wastes solid, liquid and gaseous -- which we clearly can't since, if reports are to be believed, we've already passed at least one major climate disruption tipping point. And dealing with both of these issues is made much more complex by the fact that the solutions have to be built out of people -- an unstable raw material at best, prone to violent outburst when not handled with systemic respect.

But the longest journey starts with a single step. Or at least a small set of steps. Some of them, baby steps. The nature of Greenback's journey was sketched (at least in part) by our greenhouse gas inventory. We now have a measure -- incomplete, imperfect, impeachable -- of our ecological impacts. We've made the commitment to reduce these, in net, to zero. What we know we do is what we know we've got to stop doing. So, the inventory provides a starting point. To move away from that starting point in an orderly manner -- with some reasonable hope of attaining our goal -- we need a plan.

If we just want to leave the starting point -- if we don't have, or care about, a goal -- no plan is necessary. Greenback's gaseous wastes change every year. Some of it is fluctuation, some of it is a secular trend. But, absent conscious and intentional management, the trend is in the wrong direction. Failing to plan is ...

So, if the inventory is step 1, then step 1a is to project what the future will look like if all the current behaviors and modes of operation remain in place. This is what sustainability wonks call the "business as usual" scenario. Look at the trend in electrical usage per student FTE, presume it will continue in the same (upward) direction, multiply by the expected student body size for each future year. Look at the trend in energy usage per square foot (upward, particularly as lab and residence space per student expand), presume and multiply as above. Look at employee commuting patterns, notice that folks are living farther and farther away from campus, do the math in your head. For all those sources of emissions, and more, plot the trends over as many years as you can, project into the future for two or three or five decades. It's not a pretty picture. But it's one we need, for purposes of comparison.

Some folks want to proceed directly from drawing a "business as usual" scenario to creation of a fully-formed carbon mitigation plan, but that doesn't work. Knowledge of the starting point and the objective are necessary, but insufficient. Before you can put meat on a plan, you have to give it bones. And the skeleton -- the defining germ -- of any plan is the set of priorities and constraints it embodies. Remember those "unlimited resources" and "unlimited wastes" strawmen? Those were fully discounted examples of the sort of planning which goes on before (or in the absence) of significant priority/constraint determinations. They're fairy tales, as is any plan which can't be correlated to a clear set of priorities.

What are the financial constraints? How much funding is Greenback willing to invest? How fast? How long can we invest before we start seeing financial return? Before we repay the initial investment? Even it we're willing to invest, can we get the dollars to do it? At what terms? What prices are going up? How fast? How certainly? How high before they're likely to flatten? What costs can we avoid? What costs do we need to avoid?

What are the organizational constraints? How much are we willing to change how we operate? Whose ox can get gored? Whose must be protected? Are there some functions we're willing to eliminate? Outsource? Insource?

What are the market constraints? How much can we change what we do? What we deliver? What we emphasize? Will our regulators, our accreditors approve new programs? Will our clientele go along with out elimination of old ones?

And speaking of our clientele, what constraints do they bring to campus with them? If we start changing our identity, will they see us as improving, or as having lost our way?

The truth is that achieving even climate neutrality (forget social and economic justice) will require significant changes. Change hurts. Universities (Greenback among them) may be more willing than some other institutions to implement change, but the change steps need to be pre-sold. Why those steps, and not some others? Why this department, this program, this job, this process, this service? All the signatories to the ACUPCC have agreed to reduce GHG emissions to net zero, but each will do it in its own way, based on its own priorities which express its own identity.

Getting all parties on campus to agree to a single set of guiding principles is a pipe dream. But establishing a working consensus, getting enough agreement so that most of us can move in the same direction at more or less the same time, is an absolute necessity. Maybe it can be done in classic strategic planning fashion -- have an extended, open and honest discussion, identify communities of interest, drive out our core values, codify them, agree to the code, live happily ever after. (Maybe, but not at my school.) And maybe it can be done by executive fiat -- the governor, the state department of higher ed, some other established authority can simply mandate what the priorities are. (Maybe, but the last time anyone tried that at Greenback, the local peasantry stormed the castle.) What I'm hoping will work is to float three differing sets of potential priorities, and a rough plan based on each, and determine what our values are by what we're willing to consider implementing. I'll likely have to draw up plan four (and maybe, plans five and six) after seeing the reactions to the first set of three, but those reactions will (I hope) give me the information I need.

See, any plan will consist of a set of "wedges". Charted over time -- a little reduction in the first year, a little more each year afterwards -- the plot of each savings/reduction achieved takes on a triangular aspect. Each source of emissions will need to get addressed -- some sooner, some later; some slower, some faster. But it we're doing it, and it's emitting greenhouse gases, we need to find a way to fix it. For some sources of emission ( e.g., purchased electricity), "fix it" means reduce, then source what can't be reduced renewably. For others, such as operation of the campus fleet or heating and cooling buildings, fixing it will likely involve shifting to quite different technology (solar, geothermal, whatever). Some emissions will simply have to be offset, at least for the foreseeable future -- emissions from air travel would seem to fall into this category. But, how soon do we start offsetting? How long do we wait for new technologies? What limitations, or incentives to reduce, are we willing to implement? How much behavioral change can we engender with carrots, and when do we need to start thinking "stick"?

The key success criterion isn't whether Greenback, over time, follows through and executes the carbon mitigation plan which we must soon publish. The obvious fact of the matter is that we won't. At least, not in its specifics. The plan will change over time. Technologies will change, schedules will change, cost factors will change, people's willingness to change will change. Those wedges will change shape, get moved around, shift sequence. The first version of the mitigation plan needn't be perfect, because we would have no way of recognizing perfection if we saw it.

What the initial carbon mitigation plan needs to be is acceptable. It needs to be challenging enough that it provides a basis for behavioral and institutional change, but not so challenging as to be offputting. It needs to exemplify virtue so that everyone at Greenback can feel good about implementing it, but not be in any sense Utopian. It needs to exceed our grasp, but not our reach. And it needs to say "Greenback" all over it -- in every line, and between the lines as well. It needs to remind us of who we are, and what we do, and why we do it.

Is that a tall order? Of course it is. But if I truly want my campus to be carbon neutral in 25, 35, or even 45 years, that's what's required. Getting those three alternatives out there is something I need to accomplish pretty quickly. Greenback is committed to publishing a (one, not three) carbon neutrality plan by sometime next year. And I've got less than six months to design and build a skeleton.


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