UW News

October 22, 2009

Climate Action Plan sets out vision for greenhouse-gas-neutral future at UW

News and Information

Imagine the UW’s Seattle campus 40 years from now:

  • Central energy is supplied from renewable resources. Carbon dioxide emissions from central sources are sequestered in a geological reservoir.
  • Solar thermal and solar voltaic energy have become ubiquitous. The UW’s new wind farm, located more than 75 miles from campus, provides a supplemental energy source. A brand-new open-loop geothermal system is under construction, designed to pump cold water deep from within Lake Washington to chillers that cool buildings; the water is then pumped back into the lake.
  • New campus buildings must meet a standard of energy efficiency that exceeds LEED requirements, requiring them to generate all necessary energy onsite from renewable resources. Current buildings have been superinsulated and refitted to make them as energy-efficient as possible.
  • Students many years ago agreed to tax themselves in the form of a Student Sustainability Fee, with the revenue going for student-initiated/engaged pilot projects and capital expenditures that would reduce the University’s carbon emissions. And even more significantly, students have been involved, along with faculty mentors, in the hard work of weighing environmental policy alternatives and technological innovations; UW graduates are beginning to occupy key places in many 21st century companies that promote sustainability. Even those employed in more conventional enterprises have often become workplace advocates for greener practices.

Is this an impossible future? Maybe not, if key elements of the UW’s Climate Action Plan are developed, as the University has pledged they will be.

President Emmert signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2007. This year, teams of faculty, staff and students have been meeting to flesh out this commitment into a series of action steps that the University could take to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050.

Guided by the Environmental Stewardship Advisory Committee (ESAC), with Sandra Archibald, dean of the Evans School, as its chair, more than 100 people, mostly volunteers, have participated in the effort thus far. Their commitment and achievements were celebrated at an event this week. The entire plan is available here. This document is a “plan-to-plan framework,” with the implementation decisions yet to come.

Before plunging into the challenging work of achieving climate neutrality, it is worth noting that UW commitment to and involvement with environmental issues stretches back several decades, to such signal events as the founding of the Institute for Environmental Studies in 1973 and the creation of a student-initiated campus recycling effort in the late 1980s. In the past year alone, the UW has received numerous awards (see a list here) for its environmental accomplishments, including a Sustainability Report Card grade of A- (the top grade awarded) for the third year in a row from the Sustainability Endowments Institute, which performs the only independent sustainability evaluation of campus operations and endowment investments.

Sustainability efforts continue unabated while the plan is being finalized. Just this week, the University announced launching of a new Husky Green Fund,which will be part of the Combined Fund Drive. Donations to the fund will support the Climate Action Plan initiatives and activities and administered by the Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability Office. In addition, the office offers a Sustainability Pledge as a way to build awareness about environmental issues and engage the UW community toward behavior change that is driven by positive attitude leading to positive actions.

Pretty much spontaneously, a growing network of green groups has sprung up in workplaces across campus and recently held its first “Green Bag Networking Luncheon.” The groups generally try to heighten awareness about resource conservation, purchasing choices and other workplace issues. The Health Sciences Green Team is addressing issues such as multiple-use glassware and pipette tray recycling; the UW Tower Green Team, formed by people in Educational Outreach, has even created a patio demonstration garden — planting perennials, perennial herbs, edible lilies and leafy vegetables in planters on the plaza near the tower. If you are interested in starting a green team, e-mail the Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability office at sustainableUW@uw.edu.

UW Bothell and Tacoma also have active sustainability initiatives under way and will be tackling the Climate Action Plan issues specific to those campuses as part of the implementation planning.

Perhaps the most committed and sustained energy is coming from students. Students participated in the development of the Climate Action Plan and there is student representation on the on the Environmental Stewardship Advisory Committee. There are currently 14 student green groups on campus. Students Expressing Environmental Dedication, for example, was created in 2002 by students who wanted recycling to be more readily available in residence halls. Since then, the group has worked with Housing and Food Services to increase composting of not just food but tableware as well. The group also has created a P-patch near Fluke Hall and promotes a light bulb exchange program in the residence halls. Recently students created the Green Coalition to facilitate interaction and communication among the groups.

David Corrado, the coalition’s associate director, is already at work to bring about a student green fee, with the funds distributed by a student panel to conduct research in sustainability and to develop projects around campus that help the University achieve its climate goals.

Still, it would be a mistake to understate the magnitude of the challenges ahead. Indeed, some of the relatively accessible “low hanging fruit” has already been harvested.

For example, the U-PASS program has been highly successful and nationally recognized for reducing trips to campus in single occupancy vehicles. Currently, just 21 percent of commute trips are drive-alone. There were fewer vehicle trips to campus per day in 2007 than in any of the previous 24 years. Given this situation, the Climate Action Plan goals in this area are both modest (developing a new funding model that will sustain current low-cost access to transit) and potentially expensive (attracting more faculty and students to live near campus).

One big challenge is the way the UW-Seattle generates energy and heat for many buildings. The good news is that years ago the University switched from coal to natural gas as the fuel source for the Power Plant, which supplies steam to many buildings. But the not-so-good news is that the Power Plant alone is responsible for 40 percent of the University’s greenhouse gas emissions. It’s likely that generating heat in a carbon-neutral way is going to require significant capital investments, and perhaps will need to await major technological innovations.

The plan provides a menu of alternatives and strategies without costing out the ideas or assigning them a priority in reducing the University’s carbon footprint. That will be the hard work in the next phase. Ruth Johnston, associate vice president of the Office of Strategy Management in Finance & Facilities, who oversees the Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability office, says the next phase, the creation of an implementation plan, is likely to require many different working groups that draw on faculty experts from within the University, as well as students and staff. The target for completion of the implementation plan is September 2010.

The Climate Action Plan’s recommendations are not limited to administrative or operations changes. The plan suggests ways to connect the University’s academic mission to its environmental commitment.

“Our goal is to enrich the academic plan,” says Bruce Balick, professor of astronomy, who co-led the task force that addressed academic engagement. “If we follow through on our recommendations, this could be a transformative opportunity for our students. We’ll be taking potentially concerned citizens, getting them involved in research and scholarship, taking advantage of their natural enthusiasm and creativity.  It won’t be long in geological time until humanity is the steward of the solar system.  When that happens, let’s hope that our political leaders were educated here.”

 Balick believes that that the University has only begun to tap the potential of students to influence the UW’s activities. “We haven’t given them enough experience in policy development.
I’m certain that we will be amazed at how they respond once we have opened the doors for them.  The students that I’ve met are both an inspiration and an assurance that humans will thrive for centuries. “

Balick would like to see the creation of a green scholarship fund comparable to the Mary Gates Scholarships.  His view is that these opportunities should be targeted at students who may not be majoring in an environmental area. “We know that the students and faculty in our College of the Environment will tell us, from a scientific standpoint, what needs to be done. But we need students from other disciplines to figure out how we actually do it when they enter the larger world.”

As the Climate Action Plan unfolds, there will be frequent opportunities for students and their faculty mentors to help the University, and help themselves, by focusing on a key issue of environmental stewardship that confronts the institution.  “Every administrative choice is a scholarly opportunity for students,” Balick says.