Signing (or Not) a Green Pledge

As more college presidents sign an environmental pact, one institution says it doesn't know if pledge is realistic.
February 21, 2007

Anthony Cortese had just bagged No. 75: The University of Colorado at Boulder.

For weeks, the president of Second Nature, a nonprofit that promotes sustainability in higher education, watched as presidents across the country signed onto the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which asks institutions to become "climate neutral" by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

A few hours after Cortese, an organizer of the Presidents Climate Commitment, celebrated the 75th president to sign the pledge, he announced Nos. 76-79: University of Redlands, Life University, Prescott College and Bunker Hill Community College. By any account, it's been a momentous year for supporters of the green movement on campus, and the growing list of presidential signatories is one indication.

Despite the progress, the climate commitment campaign has just received its first real 'no', from Yale University , a leader in the sustainability movement. More than a year ago, before many colleges began making sustainability pledges, the institution vowed to reduce emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Its president, Richard C. Levin, shared his vision of Yale being the "greenest university" at last month's World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

But on the pledge, it's a no-go. Julie Newman, director of Yale's Office of Sustainability, said it's too early to tell how the university will be able to meet its goals beyond 2020.

“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. “We are trying to master the short-term commitment and trying to figure out what climate neutral means and what is the most appropriate way to get there: Wind? Solar? Biomass? The jury is out. Our vision doesn't stop at 2020, but to make an informed decision about what to do in 2030 and 2050, we need to first determine what we can do now."

Cortese, while praising Yale's 2005 announcement, said the university is missing the point of the climate commitment.

"It's great that [Yale] is looking carefully at the pledge and what implementing it means, but there's nothing that procludes [the university] from saying what they are while still signing the climate commitment," he said. "Basically, 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."   

Levin's comments and Cortese's response raise an important question for college presidents: In the name of being green, how ambitious should a campus be when many solutions are unknown and articulated goals are potentially untenable?  

The climate commitment requires that colleges come up with their master plans within two years of signing on, and that within one year they should begin purchasing or producing at least 15 percent of electricity consumption from renewable sources. Several campuses are already seeking to have new buildings LEED certified by the U.S. Green Building Council -- another component of the commitment.

Cortese said many facets of the pledge are manageable now, and that colleges will be able to adapt to technology changes as they come.

"Having this list of presidents will create the demand for the new technologies and will have a big impact on national energy policy," he said.

The Yale Daily News reported this week that the university would abstain from signing the pledge because it is unclear what technologies will be available to reduce fossil fuel emissions in the future. This month, the Yale Student Environmental Coalition  circulated a petition that presses Yale to look further ahead and commit to decreasing its carbon footprint to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

"We would like [Levin] to make a long-term commitment, and whether it's through our goals or through the climate commitment is pretty much a moot point," said Micah Ziegler, co-chair of the coalition.   “We respect the fact that administration is trying hard to set reasonable benchmarks and are doing a good job to reach them.

"In a sense, we’re asking them to commit to a goal that they don’t know they can reach," Ziegler added. "That can be hard for a university, but we think it’s necessary to encourage innovation among faculty and students."

The actions of Ivy League presidents have been watched closely because sustainability leaders at the institutions have formed an informal group to promote green practices. Ivy League student groups have signed a resolution asking universities to commit to climate neutrality and have asked their presidents to sign the climate commitment.

So far, the University of Pennsylvania -- a leader in wind-energy purchasing -- has been the only Ivy signatory. Dan Garofalo, a senior facilities planner at Penn, said the university's administration, and a group of professors and students determined that the institution was already taking many of the steps required in the pledge.  

“The appeal is compelling; by forcing us to make a plan, that's the only way you can ever get started,” Garofalo said. “If we make a plan for 2050 and 2080, who knows what will come forward. We have to make some assumptions, but we look forward to diving in.”

Cornell University has formed an ad hoc committee of faculty, students and administrators that plans to release a plan for carbon neutrality by week's end. Brown University is also developing a statement of goals regarding climate neutrality.

Katherine McEachern, a sophomore at Cornell and leader of the student group KyotoNOW!, said she has pushed the administration to sign the climate commitment but understands the hesitancy because "there is a lot to understand about such a long-term commitment."

Nathan Wyeth, a junior at Brown and co-leader of the student group emPOWER, said to sign the pact is to say "we have a lot of solutions to find, we may not have them all, but given how fast technology is coming together, we are going to help make it happen."

While large campuses such as Arizona State University and the University of Florida are on the commitment list, so too are smaller colleges, including College of the Atlantic, one of the earliest signatories. David Hales, the college's president, also heads the higher education committee of the American Council on Renewable Energy, which is encouraging colleges by 2010 to purchase 100 percent renewable energy, invest at least 10 percent of their endowments into funds which support renewable energy companies and create renewable energy courses of study.

Hales said that while his college's renewable energy timeline is "a stretch," he is confident that the goal will help encourage the marketplace.

While College of the Atlantic has an environmental focus, Cortese said he has been pleasantly surprised that many of the signatories haven't in the past had a reputation of being sustainability leaders. He said he hopes to have 90 colleges signed on by mid-March. Presidents will be invited to attend a June summit on sustainability.


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