April 17, 2014

Climate Action Plan steps up sustainability strategy

As the global importance for a low-carbon economy grows urgent, Cornell has posted its most aggressive carbon-reduction strategy to date: the Cornell Climate Action Plan Update and Roadmap 2014-15. The plan focuses on climate neutrality, academic innovation and leadership, clarifies next steps for a dozen future key maneuvers, and highlights five dozen additional carbon reduction actions.

The plan is intended to enhance the university’s core missions of education, research and engagement, all the while cutting net carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Cornell now offers an environmental science and sustainability program, a climate change minor for undergraduates and more than 40 courses related to climate literacy.

With huge financial investments in lake source cooling, the combined heat and power plant, and energy conservation, the university is about 32 percent toward its “net zero” carbon emissions goal. On the horizon is a 2-megawatt solar panel array to be completed this summer near the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport and other energy projects.

“It is imperative that Cornell continue to work across campuses, sectors and continents to meet the needs of society,” said Cornell President David J. Skorton. “Our updated Climate Action Plan builds on the progress we’ve already made and prepares us to do what the future demands: strive for carbon neutrality, innovate and lead the way to a cleaner, safer, more stable world.”

“At Cornell we try to make the best decisions for the future of our campus, our community and our planet – because this is the right thing to do,” said KyuJung Whang, vice president for facilities services.

A major step toward eliminating fossil fuel combustion to heat the campus will be to pursue a deep geothermal system, supplemented with bioenergy. This may save Cornell about 38 percent of the university’s current carbon footprint. Large-scale investments in renewable energy research, demonstration projects and campus education will help drive innovation, while they will help reduce the university’s carbon bottom line, says Dan Roth, director of the university’s sustainability office.

Key actions include additional investments in energy conservation. While the first phase will cut utility costs by more than $3 million per year by 2016, the next phase aims to reduce university emissions by about 5 percent.

Other actions will be to integrate building energy standards and energy modeling into all new construction and the renovations of older buildings, optimize heat distribution across campus, and capitalize on the university’s waste streams, such as dining hall compost and forest debris, to generate renewable energy. The university plans to support regional expansion of wind and solar energy and pursue mission-linked offsets like forest management and home efficiency upgrades.

Building on CALS Green project in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Think Big, Live Green pilot program in the College of Engineering, the new plan expects to expand Cornell’s energy conservation engagement program to educate the campus community – including students – on sustainable energy and achieve a 1 percent reduction in annual electrical energy usage through changes in individual behavior. While students learn, the university staff will integrate sustainability as part of the management process. Also, the plan includes climate literacy outreach to New York state.

“We’re now going deeper and broader,” said Roth. “Our academic leaders will need to make challenging decisions as we delve into finding ways to preserve the global environment. These technical, cultural challenges are significant, and it will take everyone to embrace this commitment. This next step will become ingrained as part of university ethos. We have to be all in.”