IT and the Campus Carbon Footprint
The Presidents' Climate Commitment is not exactly on track at many institutions, but IT departments' efforts are galvanizing campuses toward longer-term carbon-neutral goals.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
A SOLID THIRD OF ALL SCHOOLS that have signed the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment are behind in some aspect of their reporting. Those that sign agree to complete an emissions inventory, set target dates and milestones for becoming climate neutral (using no more energy or natural resources, for example, than they can generate for themselves), integrate sustainability into their curriculum, and report their efforts publicly.
Just a few months ago, 15 schools were removed from the signatory list after they failed to meet three key reporting deadlines, including one that simply asked for basic details about the institution and its sustainability efforts.
Do these missed deadlines portend failure for the ambitious initiative that started off with such promise in December 2006, when a dozen college presidents invited hundreds of their peers to join in on the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at their institutions? (The current count of signatories is 673 schools.)
Not necessarily. What appears to be happening is that as campuses struggle with the big questions around carbon neutrality--and grapple with the immensity of the challenge--they're tackling many smaller initiatives that are having a positive impact in reducing energy use and galvanizing their campuses for the larger work ahead. And IT is often the leader in these sustainability efforts.
Sustainable Pattern of Behavior
Alfred University, with about 2,400 students, is in a rural area of New York, where there are actually more students than full-time residents in the remote town of Alfred. "You step outside and if there's anything obscuring your view, it's fog or clouds," says President Charley Edmondson. "The only unnatural smell in the environment is skunks."
For that reason, the university acted as if it was "somehow an exception to the problem" of climate change. It took a decade, says Edmondson, for the school to realize that, like larger institutions, Alfred was also "consuming forests with our paper and discarding plastics and e-waste."
When Edmondson took the idea of signing the commitment to a faculty meeting in early October 2007, it was met with apathy. "There was great concern that anything that a bunch of presidents had cooked up was done without much expert information and without much regard for anything other than our own desire to get media attention," he says, only partly joking. "I assured them that was not the case."
Alfred University finally signed in early 2008. Currently, the university is among those schools overdue in submitting a greenhouse gas inventory and in reporting its climate action plan. Edmondson explains that the job of pulling together the data needed for reporting requirements and decision-making is done collectively at the school--and if that means a delay in reporting, so be it. "I rather like the benefits we get as an institution from having groups of students, faculty, and staff--including the associate director of IT--meet and talk their way through these things," he says. "It's not highly efficient, but it ensures that by the time you get to the end, you're going to have less resistance to what you're trying to do than if you simply issued a decree."
What's happening is that participants in the process are learning the nuances of making decisions regarding sustainability practices. "What students learned by going through this process with the director of capital operations and the vice president of finance, for example, is that we have a couple of million dollars invested in vehicles, and we can't afford to dump them all and replace them in one stroke," Edmondson says. "We have to develop a plan for rotating older and less efficient vehicles out and replacing them, and we have to have a business plan for where we'll find the funds to do that. They gain a better grasp of what it means to be sustainable. That's something that everyone has to have if we're going to be serious as a society about doing these things."
Even as the school slowly moves through the process, Edmondson points to the pivotal role IT is playing in leading the way. "So much of what we can do to be 'footprint-less' is mediated by the work of the [information technology services] department," he says. For example, IT has been instrumental in automating processes to make the campus as paperless as possible.
"Our consumption of stationery is down substantially. Our consumption of normal copy paper is down substantially," Edmondson reports. Also, when Edmondson arrived on campus, no fewer than three people would travel to New York City from Alfred on a regular basis to attend the meeting of trustees. They almost never do that anymore--now, they log on to Skype to hold their meetings. "We have taken a major bite out of the number of trips we need to take and the money we spend on such things, which translates into budget savings," he says. "Equally important, it translates into a more sustainable pattern of behavior."
The Progress People of IT
Scottsdale Community College (AZ) is one of 10 colleges that make up the Maricopa County Community College District. Thomas Williams, sustainability coordinator, is the go-to guy on campus for maintaining the recycling program, running events on Earth Day, educating students about green initiatives, and helping faculty and staff bring their climate-related ideas to life, such as a faculty panel to discuss climate change.
It could be argued that sustainability wouldn't exist as a concept on the Scottsdale campus were it not for Williams' efforts. When he joined the facilities department, the school didn't have even a recycling program. So Williams circulated a petition that garnered 400 signatures within two days. By August 2007, the campus had 50 recycling bins. He was instrumental in helping develop the 70-page report that persuaded the district's chancellor to sign onto the Presidents' Climate Commitment, which brought in the remaining five of the 10 Maricopa colleges that hadn't yet signed.
Now Williams is working with a team of faculty, staff, and students to pull together the data needed to create Scottsdale's climate action plan, which was due in May 2010. The holdup, he says, is that people are unsure about what the school's mitigation plan should be. The mitigation section of the action plan is where the campus describes all the activities it's involved in to lessen carbon emissions on campus. The best plans lay out specific consumption reduction goals--recycling, reducing gas and energy usage, and so forth--and then list the proposed actions to reach those goals.
Looking into the future (Scottsdale is proposing to become carbon neutral by the year 2050) and setting milestones for reaching that goal has been a real challenge for participants, says Williams. "We're not sure we'll accomplish all these things," he explains, "But we hope we do." To ease the mystery of the process, Williams has divided up the mitigation section into specific areas where people have expertise. For example, faculty members are working on developing a sustainability curriculum.
But it's in the area of IT where Williams has found "progressive people" and great advice for how to improve what the school is doing "right now," he says. That includes publishing the school catalog online to reduce paper usage; switching computer purchases to dramatically lower-wattage models; converting all CRT monitors to LCD models, which consume less energy; and implementing programs to shut off student computers in labs when they haven't been used for 30 minutes and to charge students for printer usage beyond 250 pages. Next up is a possible project to implement videoconferencing to reduce the trips made by administrators for college business.
It's a big reach to go from limiting printer usage to getting people to stop using their cars (commuting makes up about 70 percent of the total emissions for the campus). "The issue of sustainability is very broad," Williams acknowledges. "People get overwhelmed with it. You have to work step by step. You can't do it all at once. But if you don't try, then nothing will happen."
Those small steps reveal the value of IT to the overall sustainability work a campus undertakes, says Toni Nelson, program manager for Second Nature, an organization that handles many of the administrative functions for the Presidents' Climate Commitment, such as putting on training events, maintaining the reporting system, and recruiting new signatories.
She has watched myriad institutions struggle to perform their carbon emissions inventory and develop an action plan for reducing it. Through it all, she says, "Many of the schools are focusing first on the things they know they can do, such as turning off computers when they're not being used." The total impact of those efforts is helping the entire community to "galvanize" around larger goals. In turn, that is helping participants create a "more visionary long-term plan for where they want to be as a campus."