Cornell poised to become global leader in sustainable development as environmental programs gain wide support on campus

Cornell Chronicle July 1, 2005

Cornell Chronicle  | By Susan Lang, July 1, 2005
Original source

Cornell is forging ahead with its environmental programs in sustainable development. Indeed, projects from recycling to energy saving are recognized as critical issues by the university's leadership and the campus is on the brink of emerging as a global leader in sustainability.

Three reports recently issued by a university environmental office make recommendations for further improvements in sustainability efforts on campus. Cornell currently offers more than 100 courses related to sustainability and has made numerous energy-saving advances, such as building the innovative Lake Source Cooling project, helping to consolidate local transit systems, offering alternative transportation incentives and sponsoring numerous sustainability events on campus in efforts to better save energy, reduce pollution, recycle, preserve green spaces and work toward building with sustainability in mind.

"Cornellians have much to celebrate in terms of sustainability efforts on campus," says Dean R. Koyanagi '90, now an M.S. degree candidate in environmental education, in a report he recently wrote for Cornell's Environmental Compliance Office (ECO). "But there is also much work to be done."

Koyanagi's report, "Sustainability at Cornell University," is one of three reports recently issued by the ECO that summarize sustainability efforts at Cornell and in higher education. Sustainable development has been defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development as meeting current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

According to Koyanagi's report and ECO, the university can take credit for such efforts as:

  • building the first residence halls (Alice Cook House and Becker North) in New York state that meets the U.S. Green Building Council "green standards";

  • recycling more than 2,000 tons of material each year;
  • diverting 320 tons of cafeteria food scraps from landfills to composting systems;
  • saving more than 25 million kilowatt hours (kWh) per year through the Lake Source Cooling project, which reduces Cornell's electricity purchases by 10 percent;
  • preserving 3,500 acres of natural and cultivated land maintained by Cornell Botanic Gardens;
  • developing an award-winning Transportation Demand Management Program; and
  • installing projects in the past 25 years that now save the university $7.6 million annually in energy expenditures and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 21 percent, or 71,000 tons a year.

A bank of heat exchangers is a major feature of the Lake Source Cooling project's facility on East Shore Drive. Water from the depths of Cayuga Lake is pumped into the exchangers, and inside them the cold lake water absorbs heat from a separate, sealed water supply that is pumped to the campus to cool campus buildings.

"Campus sustainability programs, like recycled paper purchasing, energy conservation and composting, are continuing to expand," said ECO Director Robert R. Bland. "New initiatives, such as adopting green building techniques and transportation environmental impact studies, are just beginning to gain momentum. Sustainability has been recognized as a critical issue by the university's leadership and is becoming more unified and cohesive at the grassroots level of the many diverse campus facilities and operations. Staff in the operating units are partnering with faculty and students to link the academic mission with our campus operations."

About a dozen organizations set policy or provide information on campus to support the goal of sustainability. One example is the Provost's Task Force for Sustainability in the Age of Development. Composed of 12 faculty members and two vice provosts, the task force is charged by Provost Biddy Martin with inventorying relevant work on campus and suggesting how to coordinate research and educational efforts as well as how to make additional investments in the area of sustainable development.

And the task force is forging ahead despite a recent change in Cornell's leadership. "The Sustainability Task Force met shortly after President [Jeffrey S.] Lehman announced his resignation [effective June 30]. We were curious and concerned about the potential impact of this turn of events on the deliberations of our group," said Nelson Hairston, co-chair of the provost's task force. "The provost immediately sent us word, however, that we should continue with our current schedule and that the Cornell trustees and administration are unified in their enthusiasm for continuing with Sustainability in the Age of Development as a major theme for the university." He noted that the task force expects to produce an interim progress report this month [July] and hold open meetings with the faculty in the fall to discuss the task force's initial ideas.

As a result of two campus sustainability summits last spring, largely organized by Cornell sustainability intern Garrett Meigs, more than 100 faculty, students, staff and community members came together to make recommendations. They are summarized in the second ECO report, "Campus Sustainability Summits, Spring 2005: Synthesis of Stakeholder Recommendations for a Sustainable Cornell."

Both this and Koyanagi's report call for full-time staff for campus sustainability efforts, more support for interdisciplinary collaboration around sustainability and ramping up efforts on campus to engage the entire Cornell community around sustainable development. The spring summits also stressed the need for a formal structure of collaboration, making sustainability as a fundraising priority and developing a required sustainability literacy program for the Cornell community.

"These recommendations, distilled from hours of discussion between over 100 stakeholders, provide a very specific blueprint of steps Cornell can take to advance its Sustainable Campus Initiative," said Meigs, who has since been succeeded by Alexandra N. Hollinger at the ECO. "Some of the action steps are tasks that every Cornellian can accomplish in daily life, while others can only be achieved by bold leadership from the central administration."

The summit synthesis report concludes, "Cornell University appears to be on the brink of emerging as a global leader in sustainability, both in its academic programs and across its campus. Cornell already has the academic and facilities expertise it needs. When combined with dedicated student, faculty and staff catalysts, the institution has the power to realize lasting, sustainable solutions to the serious problems facing the world today. Building on the momentum of these summits and other recent progress, the fall 2005 semester should be a very exciting time for sustainability at Cornell."

The third ECO report focuses on sustainability in higher education. According to Meigs, Cornell has implemented many of the common best practices, but to emerge as a leader, it will need more innovative and serious commitments, particularly in providing permanent staffing for sustainability efforts.

The three reports have been submitted to Provost Martin and to Stephen Golding, the Samuel W. Bodman Executive Vice President for the Finance and Administration at Cornell. A third campus sustainability summit is tentatively scheduled for October.