Climate Action Plan

Climate Action Plan

Cornell University has a history of leadership in both climate action and sustainability and is the first Ivy League university to sign the Carbon Commitment. Advancing sustainability aligns with Cornell’s academic and land grant missions, research expertise, and operations excellence. 

We aspire to create best practices by demonstrating scalable low-carbon solutions on campus, advancing climate literacy and research initiatives, and accelerating impact through collaborative partnerships locally and globally. Locally, we are committed to:

  • Reduce Ithaca campus carbon emissions to net zero by 2035 
  • Create a living laboratory for low-impact behaviors, climate education, and research 
  • Lead by example on campus and exercise climate leadership beyond campus  

Climate Action Plan

Avoid, reduce, replace, offset carbon reduction hierarchy
The carbon reduction hierarchy helps identify which actions will be most impactful and efficient.

Our Climate Action Plan is Cornell’s roadmap on how to achieve campus Carbon Neutrality by 2035. Completed in September 2009, the original Cornell Climate Action Plan (PDF) is considered the basis document as we evolve with the emergence of new technology, funding opportunities, and external regulatory, policy and market factors. The Climate Action Plan is a web-based living document, with a series of published updates and supplemental reports.

The CAP strategies and actions are informed by two decision-making frameworks, our quadruple bottom-line sustainability framework (people, planet, prosperity, and purpose) and a carbon reduction hierarchy (avoid, reduce, replace, then offset through campus-based activities).  

Current Strategies & Actions

Cornell's plan is to provide fossil-fuel free energy to the Ithaca campus. Learn more about the state-of-the-art district energy system that enables our campus to pursue carbon neutrality in ways that inform scalable, game-changing solutions for campuses and population centers in cold climates like ours, and about existing campus energy systems and programs

  • The BIG RED Energy Transition - Building an Integrated Grid for Reliability, Efficiency, and Decarbonization
    • Optimize campus energy systems for renewables
      • Peak heat, peak cooling, and emergency power strategies
      • Covert the heat distribution system from steam to hot water, including building system upgrades
      • Building renovations to support optimal ongoing use of Lake Source Cooling
      • Analyze potential benefits of additional thermal energy storage
    • Master planning for leveraging geo-exchange technology to supplement or replace Earth Source Heat as the primary source of campus heat
  • Heat campus with renewable energy
    • Develop Earth Source Heat to supply heat to buildings on the district energy system
    • Transition existing buildings that are not connected to the district energy system to heat pumps 
  • Power campus with 100% renewable electricity

About the Climate Action Plan

Key Facts

Cornell University's target date for carbon neutrality is 2035.

  • The CAP applies to the Ithaca, NY campus.
  • 2008 is the baseline year from which Cornell measures progress towards neutrality, and measures emissions in line with the Second Nature Carbon Commitment and World Resources Institute GHG Protocol.
  • The Cornell Board of Trustees approved the GHG reduction goal.
  • The plan is intended to enhance the university’s core mission while cutting net carbon emissions. 

Why Carbon Neutrality

It's imperative. Here’s what the evidence is telling us: the climate of our planet is warming at an alarming rate and human activities are the cause. How to reverse this trend poses an immense challenge, and the imperative to change our course is here, now. As one of the world’s leading universities, Cornell University has a pivotal role to play. We have a responsibility both to reduce our contribution to climate change and to generate solutions to address the mounting impacts on our planet.

We must take action. For 150 years Cornellians have taken on the world’s issues as our direct challenges. We are committed to find new solutions to complex problems. What has kept Cornell at the forefront of the sustainability movement is our institution-wide commitment to focus our collective strengths in education, research, and public engagement toward one of humanity’s greatest challenges – climate change. We put this commitment into action every day, in ways large and small.

We're at a crossroads. We have made great progress, but to move ahead we need to change the way we do things. Early successes were achieved through projects that yielded a return on capital investment. Current economic realities, including cheap natural gas and the absence of a price for carbon pollution, mean that further significant progress will be more difficult and will require making key actions institutional priorities to benefit Cornell’s academic mission and achieve carbon neutrality. Working collectively is the answer.

We can achieve our goal. Cornell’s updated Climate Action Plan prioritizes the steps toward campus climate neutrality. Academic and operational innovations are essential to our success. As we work together to create a living laboratory for climate-smart behaviors, education, and research, we are engaging the Cornell community in constructive conversations about how best to move forward. These conversations involve faculty across disciplines, students across colleges, staff across campus, and university leadership. The plan incorporates input from key project leaders, as well as ideas and contributions from students, faculty, and staff. There are ways for everyone to get involved.

History

2007: Cornell Joins the Carbon Commitment 
In 2007, Cornell University became one of the first fifty signatories and the first Ivy League institution to sign the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, now called the Carbon Commitment.  Over 600 campuses in the U.S. participate in the commitment, sharing annual greenhouse gas progress and climate action plans publicly and transparently.  

2009: First Climate Action Plan 
After signing the commitment, members of the Cornell community worked to develop the first Climate Action Plan (PDF) released in 2009.  The CAP was written by Cornell faculty, students, and staff with funding from the state energy authority, NYSERDA. 

2013: Roadmap Update 
Cornell releases a significant update to the original CAP.

2014: CAP Moves Online 
The CAP becomes a "living document" online.

2014: Goal Acceleration 
The original goal for carbon neutrality was 2050, which was accelerated to 2035 after the Acceleration Working Group (PDF) produced a report in 2014 calling for a neutrality date aligned with leading climate science and global mitigation targets. 

2016: Options Report 
The Senior Leaders Climate Action Group releases Options for a Carbon Neutral Campus (pdf) to identify the best path forward for heating and cooling the campus with zero carbon. 

2019: Sustainable Cornell Council Carbon Neutral Campus Steering Committee 
The re-organized campus sustainability governance group includes specific oversight of the implementation of the Climate Action Plan. The SCC process includes annual review of working priorities and progress.

2022: Cornell University Borehole Observatory (CUBO)
The university drilled a nearly two-mile deep exploratory borehole that has enabled researchers to further explore subsurface rock conditions and heat output. Data collected from the borehole will allow the university to determine whether it can move forward with Earth Source Heat

2024: Building an Innovative Grid for Reliability, Efficiency, and Decarbonization (BIG RED) Energy Transition
This 2-yr master planning effort encompasses detailed project planning for the conversion of the campus distribution system and building systems, provision of energy storage, peak heat, and emergency power, and scenario planning for baseload heat alternatives.