College Leaders Push for Carbon Neutrality

June 13, 2007  New York Times         By CLAUDIA H. DEUTSCH

Cape Cod Community College is erecting a wind turbine and will soon install solar panels. The dining halls at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., are offering more fresh produce from local farms. Arizona State University is distributing free bus passes to every student, employee and faculty member.

The list of universities and colleges putting up green buildings, buying alternative energy and otherwise shelling out money to green their campuses gets longer every day. And yesterday many of them put their mouths where their money is.

At a press conference in Washington, representatives of 284 colleges introduced the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment — essentially, a pledge to make their operations carbon neutral. They promised to eliminate or offset every iota of greenhouse gases resulting from light bulbs in their buildings, from flights and car trips by their faculty, even from the transportation of food to their dining halls. And they also promised to lobby other college leaders to sign the pledge.

“We want to galvanize a national commitment to the issues related to climate change,” said David Shi, Furman’s president.

Signers include Ivy League institutions like Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, small elite colleges like Bowdoin, community colleges and public universities.

“Universities are huge institutions with huge carbon footprints, but they also are laboratories for concepts of sustainability,” said Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State and a leader in this effort.

David Skorton, the president of Cornell, put it more colorfully: “We’re saying that sustainability is no longer an elective.”

In some ways, the pledge is more symbolic than substantive. Most studies show that institutions of higher education generate, at most, 3 percent of the greenhouse gases in the United States. And many, if not most, of those who have signed already run green campuses.

Still, the pledge spells out concrete actions. Each institution plans to analyze its own carbon footprint, probably within the next two years, and then set specific strategies and a timetable to neutralize it. Each also promises to create a steering committee of students, faculty and staff to oversee the effort. The leaders plan to meet regularly to swap ideas, and to do so through the Web as well.

The institutions will define carbon neutrality for themselves — deciding, for example, whether to consider emissions from student vehicles as part of a carbon footprint. No institution has set a firm deadline for achieving total carbon neutrality.
Students say the initiative is long overdue. The Energy Action Coalition, a nonprofit group, has 70 full-time people helping students lobby their presidents to sign. “We are really excited to see presidents mount a top-down effort,” said Billy Parish, the coalition coordinator.

The signers say the pledge will have an impact not only on their own campuses but also on the campuses of their peers and on the companies or institutions where their graduates end up.

“We can show students how to live in a more energy efficient way, and what we teach them they will eventually teach their employers,” said Kathleen Schatzberg, the president of Cape Cod Community College, who said she had persuaded 15 other college presidents in Massachusetts to sign the pledge.

Mr. Skorton of Cornell enumerates dozens of projects and courses on sustainability at Cornell that he wants other universities to know about. “University presidents don’t use the bully pulpit nearly enough,” he said.

Environmentalists agree. “Higher education is a $320-billion-a-year industry,” said Lee Bodner, the executive director of ecoAmerica, an environmental group that helped start the initiative. “When colleges say sustainability is important, it sends a signal to the companies that supply them with goods and services.”
Meanwhile, campuses are reacting. “When facilities managers and professors see their president stand up and pledge, they start reallocating budgets,” said Emma Stewart, the director of environmental strategy for the nonprofit group Business for Social Responsibility.

For example, the University of Colorado at Boulder is negotiating contracts to derive all its electricity from green sources like windmills and solar panels and is working with students on a system to slash waste of all kinds.

Dave Newport, the director of the university’s environmental center, said none of that would have gotten off the ground if its chancellor had not signed the pledge.
“Six months ago I couldn’t have even gotten a meeting with the leadership to discuss the idea,” he said. “Before, we were paddling a steamship with canoe paddles, but now it’s full speed ahead.”