Climate Action for Some

88 colleges and universities submit plans to reduce carbon footprints -- but more than 300 miss the deadline they pledged to meet.
September 17, 2009

The deadline for submission of climate action plans by close to 400 signatories of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment came and went Tuesday with not even a quarter of those institutions submitting blueprints on time.

In all, just 88 of the 392 colleges and universities whose presidents signed the pledge back in 2007 filed their reports – the third set of documents required by the agreement -- by the end of the day on September 15. Another 135 asked for extensions, citing the need to get approvals from boards of trustees or go through a final stage of evaluation by their local communities in the next few weeks and months. The remaining 169 institutions will be contacted by ACUPCC staff and offered assistance in drafting plans.

Despite the low participation rate, the initiative’s leaders pat themselves on the back for even making an attempt. “This is really a momentous occasion,” said Toni Nelson, the ACUPCC program director at Second Nature, one of three non-profits supporting the effort. “This really is the first sector-wide effort at climate action plans anywhere in the United States, let alone in higher education.”

The presidents of 650 colleges and universities -- representing a third of the U.S. student population -- have signed the commitment and have staggered submission deadlines for initial profiles on their sustainability efforts, greenhouse gas inventories and climate action plans based on when they joined the initiative.

Among the charter signatories that missed this week’s climate action plan deadline, many also missed earlier deadlines to submit implementation profiles and greenhouse gas inventory reports.

Mark Orlowski, executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, said some signatories may have taken on commitments too large for them to be able to meet. “They were very enthusiastic about signing up and joining but have not been able to fully follow through,” he said. “The timelines may have been too tight, the money might not be there – just conducting a greenhouse gas survey is very expensive.” (Inside Higher Ed examined reasons for missed deadlines earlier this year, finding that presidential turnover, budget cuts and the lack of staff accountable for sustainability projects were often the root causes of lapsed commitments.)

At some institutions that missed the deadline or asked for extensions, officials stressed their commitment to submitting climate action plans. Dave Newport, director of the Environmental Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has a staff of 50 working on sustainability issues, but still needs more time, not to formulate a plan but to get feedback from the campus and local communities. “Boulder is a place where people are very well-versed and concerned about conservation issues,” he said. “There’s a high interest level in where we’re going with carbon on this campus … and when we’ve asked for input, we’ve gotten back some very specific and pointed comments that have helped us improve our plan."

Indiana State University, Northeastern University, Goucher College, the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Los Angeles Community College District all missed the deadline, as did dozens of others.

Action Plans

For all the extensions and missed deadlines, there were still the 88 that did file climate action plans this week. The institutions and their plans vary greatly, but almost all intend to take similar steps: updating utilities to be more energy efficient, seeking out sources of renewable energy to power campuses, and encouraging students, faculty and staff to cut down on energy consumption and research new green technologies.

The campus action plans all call for emissions reductions. Florida International University in Miami plans to cut total emissions by 25 percent by 2030. The College of New Jersey aims for a 10 percent reduction by 2010, 11 percent by 2011, 13 percent by 2014 and a 100 percent reduction by 2040. Other institutions have plans more and less ambitious.

The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Me., which calls itself the United States’ first carbon neutral college, is already carbon neutral. It has been powered by a 100 percent renewable energy source since November 2007 and sought other reductions in emissions. To compensate for any waste it could not eliminate, the college has been buying renewable energy credits, paying for clean energy to mitigate the on-campus carbon footprint, at a cost of $10 per metric ton since December 2007.

The University of Pennsylvania is a much larger institution -- with a $5 billion endowment and more 40,000 faculty, staff and students -- and a much larger effort at carbon mitigation. It is the largest purchaser of renewable energy credits among American colleges and universities, buying more than 192,000 megawatts in 2007 and 2008. The institution has plotted a course to cut total emissions by 7 percent over its 2007 levels by 2010 and 24 percent by 2014 but has not set a goal of total carbon neutrality by any one distant point in time.

“If a goal is too far out most people don’t see a reason to change in the short term,” said Anne Papageorge, vice president of facilities and real estate services. “We’re trying to motivate behavior change right away with imminent goals a year away, instead of goals that are 20 years away.”

A big part of Penn’s efforts is just giving everyone affiliated with the university some basic understanding of sustainability issues and ways to conserve energy. President Amy Gutmann led a kickoff festival Wednesday where she stressed her commitment to green technologies and called for her institution to lead the way in conservation and creation of new green technologies.

“I pledge to you as president that I and my team will take this most seriously, and we will lead Penn forward, but only with your help,” she said in a midday speech at Houston Hall, the student union. “This is a mission that is both educationally important and absolutely critical for our planet. We will continue working together as one extended, environmentally friendly Penn family. We will make Penn the greenest campus in the country.”

Another focus for Penn is reducing emissions coming from its medical school and other research labs that “had the most energy consumption by far,” Papageorge said. “It’s a big challenge, a real hurdle, to figure out ways to conserve energy in the midst of so much high intensity, high energy use research.” The university is replacing its air quality monitoring systems in lab buildings and finding other ways to save energy.

The plan submitted by the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass., calls for a 20 percent reduction in total carbon emissions by 2015 and total neutrality by 2040. To reach that long-term goal, the plan avoids buying carbon offsets and depends on the creation of new technologies, said Scott M. Merrill, the college’s director of physical plant and co-chair of its Presidential Task Force on the Environment. “We want to achieve results through what we do on campus and not through some outside means.”

The college has already begun working toward its shorter-term goal, inventorying campus emissions, removing trays from dining halls and initiating communications campaigns to get students and faculty to conserve fuel, electricity and water. It has also upgraded its boiler systems, installed more efficient lighting, and replaced cathode ray tube computer monitors. At the campus ice rink, old chillers have been replaced with an ammonia refrigeration system. Lighting upgrades and new HVAC units are scheduled to be installed there during the 2010 fiscal year.

Though these projects are obviously not free, they haven’t stalled because of the recession, Merrill said. “We haven’t cut back on our goals in any way. It’s not like we had a plan for a higher percentage emissions reduction by 2015 that we then cut because of the economy.”

Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., said limited budgets there “haven’t in any broad or dramatic sense” diminished the boldness of the college’s climate action plan. She’s turned to energy conservation and efficiency as ways to save money. “You may initially go into it thinking this is going to make the project more expensive, but it won’t seem that way once you’ve saved on your energy bills.”

Agnes Scott also saved tens of thousands of dollars by using green materials and construction practices to renovate the 87-year-old Anna I. Young Alumnae House, Kiss said. “We were anticipating $150,000 in overage costs, but the total was only $25,000 or $30,000.” The college will find out later this month where the renovation will qualify for LEED-Silver certification. Plus, low-flow bathroom fixtures and more efficient heating and cooling systems will reap immediate savings in monthly bills.

Gina Coplon-Newfield, Second Nature's director of communications and development, said "not a single school has dropped out of the commitment because of hard economic times," at least not actively. "They may be experiencing challenging times but they still want to make efforts on energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Orlowski of the Sustainable Endowments Institute said his work has shown “there are quite a few savvy schools that recognize it can not only be good for the environment but also save money” by adopting sustainable technologies and reducing energy uses, he said. They understand “if we put x million dollars into this certain area … in as little as 18 months to three years we will have paid for that project.”

He is also encouraging college and university endowments to invest in their own efforts at sustainability because “opportunities for vastly superior returns exist.” A few institutions have heeded his advice, but he would not disclose their names before his organization releases its annual report card at the end of the month.


Back to Top