'Climate Change and the University'

Hardly a week goes by without a college announcing a plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions or build classrooms that are environmentally friendly. In Degrees That Matter: Climate Change and the University ,” (MIT Press) Ann Rappaport and Sarah Hammond Creighton, both leaders of Tufts University’s Climate Initiative, explain how colleges can be at the forefront of the green movement.

May 1, 2007

Hardly a week goes by without a college announcing a plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions or build classrooms that are environmentally friendly. In Degrees That Matter: Climate Change and the University ,” (MIT Press) Ann Rappaport and Sarah Hammond Creighton, both leaders of Tufts University’s Climate Initiative, explain how colleges can be at the forefront of the green movement. The co-authors responded to questions from Inside Higher Ed about their latest project.

Q: Sarah Hammond Creighton's book "Greening the Ivory Tower: Improving the Environmental Track Record of Universities, Colleges, and Other Institutions," came out in 1998, before the mainstreaming of the green movement. How are you expecting the public's reaction to this book to differ, given the timing?

A: Growing public interest in global warming, particularly on campuses, is very exciting. But there is a long way to go before people understand what needs to be done by governments, by large and small organizations and by individuals to make serious reductions in our emissions of heat trapping gases and to adapt to the changes we will experience as the climate changes. Degrees that Matter identifies climate action opportunities that probably won't occur to most readers. The book also challenges our institutions to think about how graduates are prepared to live in a world transformed by global warming.

Q: Why are colleges, in particular, well-positioned to reduce their footprint on the environment?

A: Colleges and universities are well-positioned to take actions to reduce emissions of climate altering gases because most institutions own and operate their own buildings. Or a government owns the buildings. Building owners can benefit from investments in energy efficiency during their entire operational life through reduced energy costs. Colleges and universities also can experiment and innovate, not only in the realm of technology but also in social systems.

Q: What is the main misconception about what it takes to incorporate green practices on a campus? What generally derails plans?

A: When people think about reducing heat-trapping gas emissions, they often think about putting wind turbines and photovoltaic panels on campus buildings. For most campuses, these visible commitments to alternative energy are important, but they rarely generate enough reductions to make a huge difference. Large reductions in emissions will come from changing our infrastructure. This includes modifying the way electricity is generated, dramatically increasing the efficiency of the existing building stock and ensuring that new buildings are extremely efficient, and involves re-thinking transportation. Creating extremely efficient buildings and developing transportation solutions require capital and expertise, both of which may be in short supply. Some of these actions can be controlled directly by campus decision makers, and in other cases, we can help create demand for products and services that reduce emissions through procurement practices and we can participate in public policy dialogs.

A lack of time and focus on the problem may arguably be the biggest challenge in the short run. However, we also need policy changes in Washington and in many other capitols to put in place appropriate incentives and to allocate costs properly so that actions in favor of emission reduction are accelerated.

Q: You write that "the unspoken rule is that any new activity must save money, bring in new sources of revenue or create value to the
university in some other way. Climate change strategies may necessitate a nontraditional view of investments. The opportunity to reduce costs in the long run is a very compelling rationale for embracing a commitment to climate change." Talk about this challenge.

A: Colleges are in business for the long term, so making infrastructure investments that may have somewhat higher first costs but reduced operational and maintenance costs seems like it is always the right choice. This is a life cycle costing approach. The problem is that some colleges do not have sufficient funds in their construction or maintenance budgets to "do it right the first time." We think this problem can be overcome and offer suggestions for financing mechanisms.

In addition, colleges and universities must understand that the status quo has inherent risk. These risks include the direct risk of climate change impacts, the risk to the institution’s investments and the risk of increased energy costs that may change the financial calculus of efficiency investments.

Q: How can you best tell if a college's environmental promise has teeth or is just empty rhetoric?

A: We are concerned that individual high-visibility projects can be confused with a comprehensive climate action effort. We suggest a set of activities that are the basis for a credible effort. These include:

  • The campus master plan includes sustainability.
  • Energy management systems are in place.
  • Funding for energy efficiency is provided.
  • Standards are in place for new construction.
  • No old lighting technology is on campus (no incandescent or T-12 lamps).
  • A recycling program is in place.
  • The curriculum includes robust discussion of climate change and energy.
  • A program to address single-occupancy vehicle use is in place and automobile alternatives are developed and implemented.
  • A baseline inventory of the institution’s greenhouse gas emissions is conducted and published. The inventory needs to be updated periodically to show progress toward an established goal. A program that's transparent and effective will provide the numbers that document progress, not just the anecdotes.

Q: You write that "even when new, very efficient buildings are constructed, our net emissions still increase unless reductions occur in older, less efficient buildings.... [T]he concept of net reduction is challenging for a culture that practically worships growth." Are you an advocate of slow growth on campuses, and what should be done in the older buildings, many of which would be unlikely to be LEED certified?

A: Older buildings often need renovations to improve occupant comfort, functionality, indoor air quality, aesthetics and efficiency. Growth can be achieved while at the same time reducing emissions if the college or university is viewed as a system. The system includes heating, cooling, and powering our buildings, providing mobility to all members of our community, operating and maintaining facilities and grounds, feeding and housing those who live on campus and in teaching, learning and service centers such as hospitals, and supporting the technology that facilitates our educational mission.

Q: Replacing incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent models is one example of targeting low-hanging fruit listed in the book. Is this the easiest thing colleges can do, and what are some other easy-to-adopt policies?

A. Using very efficient lighting, occupancy sensors and lighting controls makes a lot of sense for colleges because the savings can be significant. For example, Tufts recently upgraded the lighting in 14 buildings or parts of buildings. This saves over $90,000 per year. The savings can be used to conduct other efficiency measures or to achieve other university priorities such as providing more scholarships. Other easy-to adopt-policies include ensuring that only the most energy-efficient equipment is purchased or provided by contractors. This includes everything from vending machines (the old-style drink machines are notorious energy hogs) to computers to refrigerators and washing machines.


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