Since the Board of Trustees of the University approved the Climate Action Plan in May, 2009, the annual green house gas (GHG) inventory of the University has been trending downward. The calculated 2010 emissions were 8.9 percent below the 2007 baseline. These reductions are roughly on par with the stated goals set forth in the CAP, and that document has proved to be an able guide.
Over that same time, the Sustainable Duke website has indicated some mission creep. In addition to the objectives of the CAP in reducing emissions and reaching carbon neutrality by 2024, there are now robust sections that cover campus initiatives in other areas like dining, waste, water and purchasing.
This totally makes sense.
The CAP was created as a direct response to President Richard Brodhead’s signing of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) in 2007. Sustainability, however, means more than just climate to a school’s operation, reputation, ranking and service to society.
This year, the president-appointed Campus Sustainability Committee, of which I am a member, and its many subcommittees have been directed to move beyond climate and focus some energy on the creation of a Sustainability Strategic Plan (SSP).
In addition to getting a few more points on the next Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS) rating submission in three years, an SSP has the potential to empower unexpected change. In the same way President Brodhead told me last year the CAP led the University to end its use of coal.
In the same way the CAP measures greenhouse gas emissions and set a target for carbon neutrality, the SSP will derive its success from the identification of reliable data streams and clear, articulate goals that can be measured.
The areas into which the SSP has the power to move however, (eg. purchasing and waste) are decision areas that quickly become decentralized into Duke’s many schools, departments and buildings. This will provide a major challenge like those already being tackled in the area of personal transportation.
In addition, without the same unifying commitment from ACUPCC that led to the CAP and similarly-focused plans at schools across the country and world, the SSP must navigate a less-defined space.
Though several peer and neighboring institutions including Yale, N.C. State, Princeton and Purdue have published SSPs, they are each slightly different in their approach and scope. Duke will be the same. Instead of crafting a holistic SSP over the course of a year, like was done with the drafting of the CAP, a couple choice areas have been selected, to be followed by additional areas in later years.
This year’s primary areas of focus are: a) water and storm water and b) transportation. The secondary area is waste reduction/recycling/composting.
The first focus, water and Storm water, is a policy area that is under central administrative control and has garnered heightened interest since the severe drought of 2007. A large user education effort was made at that time, and compliance with state and local regulations will dictate storm water management requirements. This is a safe, easy category to include in the first year. It is also regionally relevant if not particularly progressive.
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The second area of focus this year is transportation. This topical area seems redundant, however, as it is covered under the CAP, and a subcommittee and a working group already exist to address the stated and evolving goals and challenges.
Finally, as a secondary focus area, a new subcommittee will form to consider materials management on campus including recycling, waste and composting. Waste management—and recycling in particular—is an often-lamented underachievement on Duke’s campus. This newly formed subcommittee has an opportunity to challenge that reality, but it’s not likely to be easy. The current waste management system is of the decentralized variety and therefore rife with political and bureaucratic implications.
Not included in this year’s list of focus areas are dining and purchasing. Dining in particular is a highly relevant topic area right now with the West Union renovation and growing food awareness on campus. It’s likely that these areas will come later, I just hope the prime opportunity to start to address them specifically, and sustainability in a holistic way has not passed.
The SSP has the power to change Duke in unexpected and positive ways. Let us make sure Duke is open to the possibility.
Liz Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Thursday.