Signatories of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment publicly pledge  to take a series of concrete steps “in pursuit of climate neutrality.” The biggest deadline is yet to come: Climate action plans, which are to outline an institutional strategy for achieving climate neutrality and include a target date, are due for the charter signatories by September 15. Colleges can set their own timelines for achieving climate neutrality, but are (voluntarily) bound to set reporting deadlines along the way.
So far, the early signatories have had to submit an implementation profile identifying the “tangible actions” with which they'll begin, and a baseline inventory of their current greenhouse gas emissions. Participating colleges submit to public accountability and scrutiny of their progress: In that spirit, 78 percent are meeting their reporting deadlines and are considered "in good standing," according to the recently-released annual report . Another 22 percent are not. (The reporting system is available online .)
Anthony D. Cortese, president of Second Nature, a nonprofit that's one of three organizations managing the commitment, said he thinks that’s pretty impressive, especially in this (economic) climate. “This is a voluntary commitment, no one expected that we would have the kind of downturn that we have, and yet we still have over 75 percent meeting their obligations and the others just needed some additional time,” he said.
“This has been the first economic downturn when people are saying indeed, the right thing for the environment is also the right thing for the economy. This to me is a huge conceptual and social turnaround.
“If anything, what you are seeing is that because of a number of situations, the economic downturn, maybe the level of expertise at a particular school, is just such that they will be delayed," Cortese said.
Indeed, many colleges are delayed, for different reasons. Some have been slowed by the recession, with hiring freezes and budget cuts sapping what little staff or financial resources they might have had to devote to this. Some small institutions without designated sustainability staffs have simply found the process daunting. (Many of the colleges that are still overdue in reporting are small in size or relative budgets: community colleges, or smaller branch campuses of state universities.)
Meanwhile, others seem largely unconcerned with the specific steps and documentation required so far under the commitment -- while affirming the big-picture goal behind it. For these colleges, which invariably cite an array of sustainability-oriented projects under way, paperwork hasn't jumped to the top of the priorities list (although the commitment the presidents signed is premised on the idea of public reporting).
Take Salem Community College, in New Jersey, which hasn't submitted any of the documentation required under the Presidents Climate Commitment and is therefore not in good standing. But officials at Salem -- which was ahead of the curve in moving to geothermal in the 1990s -- have been busy building a new tri-generation plant. The $2 million plant will use one energy source (natural gas-powered turbines) to produce electricity, cooling and hot water. It's set to open in June.
“If it's the decision do we roll up our sleeves and build the plant versus get a committee together and all of that, the decision is to roll up our sleeves and build the plant," said Ray Constantine, executive director of special projects at Salem. “I kind of smiled because a lot of the ones that haven’t completed the paperwork are community colleges, if you look at the list. It's funny, universities have all that money and they have all that formality. They can have a person and that’s all they do, the climate commitment … then you have a small community college like us.”
Or take Cascadia Community College, in Washington State. Cascadia has environmental stewardship written right into its mission statement , and has worm bins scattered all over campus for composting purposes; it is hoped that a new building opening in October will achieve LEED Gold certification. The college even brings in goats to graze on invasive blackberries. In short, there's no shortage of sustainability initiatives  happening on the campus. But, if you go to the Presidents Climate Commitment Web site, Cascadia's likewise not in good standing.
"We’ve been remiss. And we’ve got a lot of things going on, we’re a growing institution and I think I probably have to take responsibility for not making sure the paperwork was done in time. We’re committed," said William Christopher, the president.
They've been challenged in part by limited human resources, and also the bureaucracy inherent in their campus setup; they're co-located with the University of Washington's Bothell campus, and that complicates matters, Christopher said.
"Let me say that it’s our fault that we haven’t done it yet. It’s not the rigor or the requirements or the voluntary nature of the reporting, it’s our problem. I think the reporting structure is fine and the expectations are high but that's good, and we have simply not done it," Christopher said.
Still Signing On
There are now 637 signatories of the Presidents Climate Commitment; the number grew from 467 to 605 in 2008 and, since the start of the year, has climbed by another 32. Only one college, Southwestern Oregon Community College, has officially withdrawn. However, at least a couple of colleges that are unlikely to live up to the commitment's obligations anytime soon remain on the list, including Antioch College, where operations have been suspended.
Colorado College is one of the most recent sign-ups. Its president, Richard F. Celeste, had originally resisted signing on, wanting to better understand what a commitment to "climate neutrality" would actually entail. Over a couple of years, and with the involvement of students, faculty and staff, plus a consultant, "we came up with what I think is a pretty clear road map of what we have to do and an understanding of what it will cost and what we can achieve and how we can benchmark our efforts. With that in hand, I went to the board and said 'I think now is the time to sign the climate commitment.' And the board agreed and so we did," Celeste said.
As for climate neutrality, "We think we have a very good shot at it," he said. "It's going to take substantial investments, some of the substantial investment is certainly going to have to wait a few years given the state of the economy." In terms of big-ticket items, the college is looking into the possibility of investing in wind power on a consortial basis, and its campus in the San Luis Valley "is pretty ideally situated for a solar farm," Celeste said. At the same time, student attitudes are changing, he said, and they seem more willing to cut back on electricity usage by turning off computers and so forth. "So there are some things which are essentially no cost which can have a significant impact," he said.
"It's not one of the above, it's all of the above."
Celeste said Colorado College's biggest challenge in moving towards climate neutrality may well be student travel, both to and from campus and for study off-campus and overseas . Suffice to say that many participating colleges know at this point how they'll start moving towards carbon neutrality, but the perfect solutions needed to get to complete neutrality remain elusive (short of huge offset purchases , and that's a potentially costly, and complex, proposition). After all, under the commitment, colleges are responsible not only for the emissions resulting from the generation and purchase of power and faculty and staff travel, but also from student commuting (which makes up a disproportionate amount of total emissions at community colleges, for instance).
Hibbing Community College, in Minnesota, is another institution that signed the commitment in recent weeks. "The first part of what we're thinking of, our strategy, is the low-hanging fruit. That's very doable in this economic climate," said Don Graves, a biology and environmental faculty member and a leader on the college's Green Team.
"I think in this economic climate it probably gives us some great advantages," he said. "For the first time, we're going to take a good comprehensive look at our carbon footprint, but of course that has a lot to do with our energy footprint. We know that just by doing some things we should have done in the '70s, probably we can save 10 to 15 percent off our electricity bill."
Jeremiah Dumas, director of the Environmental Collaborative Office at Mississippi State University, another new signatory, and a research professor of landscape architecture, made a similar point. Dumas suggested that the economic climate actually adds to the validity of making the pledge right now. "We aren't going to have a surplus of money on expensive projects. By no means are we going to be installing campus-wide photovoltaic systems, etc. and etc. and etc. But I think what this [economic] climate does do is show that environmental stewardship is more than just lessening our footprint on the environment and on the earth but what it's doing is giving us the opportunity to be very efficient and very effective in energy use," he said.
Russell A. Davis, president of Gloucester County College, in New Jersey, said he originally worried about the financial obligation inherent in any kind of climate commitment. He signed on, however, after his students petitioned him this Earth Day. “To see them so interested in it and to see so many of them aware of it let me know it was something the college could no longer sit on.”
"The commitment's timelines are sensible, in terms of not necessarily having a project completed in a year but at least having something in mind that will change the face of how we do business today," Davis said.
A Challenging Assignment
Other colleges that joined the commitment earlier on, however, have struggled with those timelines. Colleges that have missed deadlines are denoted by the red lettering next to their names on the Presidents Climate Commitment's reporting Web site .
About that red lettering, "It’s pressure we prefer to avoid. We don’t necessarily want a negative perception associated with our campus. But at the same time we, like many other campuses across the country, are trying to do the right thing and do it well," said Michael Koman, sustainability coordinator at the University of South Carolina's flagship Columbia campus.
"We may have some red letters next to our name for awhile, but our ultimate goal is to have it done and done correctly," Koman said.
The Columbia campus has requested an extension for submitting its greenhouse gas inventory, originally due from them in January. A draft is completed, Koman said, but officials there are trying to improve it. “Since we’re going to be basing a lot of economic decisions down the road on this, we want to make sure the numbers are more accurate," he explained. Meanwhile, the other seven South Carolina campuses -- Aiken, Beaufort, Lancaster, Salkehatchie, Sumter, Union and Upstate -- also have red lettering by their names. (Former president Andrew A. Sorensen signed the commitment on behalf of all eight institutions; the current president, Harris Pastides, has stated  that sustainability is one of his major goals.)
"The other campuses have been struggling, as many schools are. Because of budget cuts, everyone’s a little short of people and talent," Koman said. He added, too, that "the other campuses, they’re just small campuses and they don’t necessarily have anyone who would normally work on creating those documents.... When I say small, some of them are a single building. Obviously if it's a one-building campus there’s minimal staff."
In other words, they'll get there, Koman said, but they'll need some help. “The Columbia campus is trying to assist some of them in the process," said Koman. "Next week I’m going to our Sumter campus to help them. Every campus is going to be different, but we may simply use a committee approach for them, to train them quickly and help them go through the steps.”
"Obviously USC's extremely committed to this, from the administration all the way down to staff and faculty, as are the satellite campuses," he said.
Officials at many colleges that are overdue, however, simply didn't respond to requests for comment. At some institutions, public relations officials cited difficulty tracking down the person who was in charge of implementing the commitment (in Chicago State University's case, for example, the person originally in charge has since left). Nicolette Toussaint, the associate vice president of communications at Alliant International University, which hasn't submitted any of the required paperwork under the commitment, declined an interview request, "[b]ecause the people who you’d need to talk to are traveling and impossible to reach." She did not respond to two follow-up messages, sent over the space of three days, seeking clarification on the status of the university's participation in the commitment.
Colleges that haven't submitted anything yet under the commitment (like Alliant) might require more attention, said Toni Nelson, climate program manager at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, which co-organizes the commitment. But she added that the Climate Commitment is stepping up its own efforts in terms of outreach to colleges, and is in the process of hiring a full-time implementation coordinator. "There was a period of time when there wasn't necessarily a lot of direct communication.... With the first group, we've been playing catch-up," she said.
“I think I can say with confidence that those 22 percent that haven’t submitted their greenhouse gas inventories, I feel very confident we’ll get at least half of those in relatively soon."
Rice University's overdue greenhouse gas inventory, for instance, should be coming in any day now. “The inventory is completed, I just need to post that online.... It is up high on my to-do list," said Richard R. Johnson, the director of sustainability.
He's since shifted his attention to the daunting task of completing a climate action plan for the institution, due for Rice in January (deadlines are staggered based on when colleges signed up). Johnson co-taught an undergraduate class this spring in which students' final papers addressed the research question: "Can Rice double in size by 2050 and become climate neutral?"
Within that question are sub-questions: "One of the bigger questions, is, quite frankly, what do we think is going to happen with technology and two, what do we think is going to happen with the availability of fossil fuels in the future?" Johnson said.
Students more optimistic about technological developments were more optimistic about reaching the climate neutrality goal. Whereas "others who refused to apply a growth rate in technology came back and said this is going to be a big challenge. You're going to have to cover this place in solar panels and that's going to be wildly expensive. I don't think any of the students really wrapped their arms around the other part of the question which is how much coal do we have left, how much natural gas do we have left?" Johnson said.
"These are some of the concept questions that underlie a seemingly innocent final assignment" -- a class assignment in this case, but it's also Rice University's, and more than 600 other colleges' too. Deadlines are approaching.