Although classes have only just begun, the 2016-2017 year is already proving to be eventful, as the Office of Sustainability recently announced its Climate Action Plan (CAP) was approved by President Catharine Bond Hill. While Hill has since left the College, the plan will be presented to Vassar’s next president as part of their responsibility to uphold. Her approval was contingent on endorsement by the Sustainability Committee, the Master Planning Committee and the Priorities and Planning Committee.
The CAP’s primary authors are Sustainability Coordinator Alistair Hall ’11, Associate Professor of Geography and Chair of Geography and Faculty Sustainability Coordinator Mary Ann Cunningham and Associate Dean of Strategic Planning Thomas Porcello, with the help of student sustainability interns. The plan is the result of a joint effort between the Office of Sustainability, officially established in 2015, and the College Committee on Sustainability, created in 2001 as a senior thesis project.
While Vassar has been conscious of its carbon footprint for some time, the consensus among the Office and Committee was that the 2011 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan that was in place needed revision. They worked throughout the 2015- 2016 academic year to develop a comprehensive set of guidelines and goals for making Vassar a more environmentally progressive campus. The ultimate objective is to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. Sustainability Coordinator Alistair Hall asserted, “We believe [it] is an ambitious but ultimately feasible goal.”
The CAP, which is available for the public to read online, consists of five main proposals: the establishment of administrative objectives; socially and fiscally appropriate allocation of resources; consideration of master planning; effective energy management and engagement with the Vassar community.
The greenhouse gas policy outlined in the plan follows the parameters set by the World Resources Institute Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which differentiates between three categories of emissions. The first is direct, on-campus burning of fossil fuels, such as in the central heating plant. The second is comprised of off-site but directly attributable emissions, which includes energy purchased for the campus. The third consists of all other emissions, such as from waste and transportation. Hall elaborated, “[T]here are different philosophies on what you include there. Some colleges do not include travel. We have.” This travel allocation includes expenses associated with students and faculty traveling to and from the College on breaks, admissions officers visiting high schools and even Junior Year Abroad.
Being cautious about long-distance travel is one way students can reduce emissions. Sustainability intern Sophie Bedecarré-Ernst ’17 remarked, “I really would like to emphasize the carbon impact that air travel has. Especially in terms of JYA, there is a huge carbon footprint that we rarely think about. Pursuing other means of travel can be a really positive experience, too, particularly for travel to and from school over winter and summer breaks.” However, Hall assured, “This doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop people going abroad, but I think there’s an educational opportunity to be had around the costs, hidden and real, associated with our day to day practices.”
As the CAP was developed at the same time as the Campus Master Plan underwent revisions, building renovations and new constructions factor heavily into the CAP. The plan discourages undergoing construction unless the existing infrastructure cannot accommodate academic needs that arise, but also provides guidelines should additions be necessary.
New buildings on campus, such as the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences, will be designed to be innovative and as close to carbon neutrality as possible. Certain architectural codes such Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) could be employed as well. The CAP also strives to meet the 2030 Challenge established by the non-profit Architecture 2030, a coalition of architects and engineers committed to creating usable, reliable guidelines for designing carbon-neutral buildings. Sustainability interns also drafted further green building guidelines over the summer and those amendments are in deliberation.
Retroactive energy efficiency is just as important as constructing new green buildings for reducing carbon emissions. The central heating plant is the entity with the highest emissions, at 39 percent of all 2015 campus emissions. “It’s a large natural gas system; it heats about 80 percent of campus, all of the dorms, all of our academic buildings and it’s been around since the early 1900s,” Hall explained. “It’s a really big embedded part of campus infrastructure, so coming up with a plan for what is the future of that facility, that doesn’t include fossil fuels, [is important].” Other renovations include modifying electricity use. The CAP reads, “Recent and forthcoming LED lighting retrofits for the Parking Lots, AFC, the Pool, Buildings & Grounds, and Rocky Hall represent a five percent reduction in our total electricity usage.”
There are several projects to look forward to in the coming months. Last fall, the Office of Sustainability announced that they intend to replace 20 percent of campus energy use with renewable energy sources, including a solar initiative and hydropower contract with a facility in Beacon. The College began using the hydropower plant in August, and is awaiting the first report in September to determine its effectiveness. Another prospective project is the installation of a metering system in the winter in all of the residential and senior housing to track energy usage, which will allow both administration and students to monitor differences in consumption.
The CAP is not only a document for the use of the Office of Sustainability or associated offices and persons, but is intended to be a tool for interdepartmental collaboration to achieve mutual goals. Sustainability intern James Falino ’17 noted, “[I]t was a huge relief to our office that the work we put in for the past few years has been approved and that we got to crowdsource ideas from other orgs, professors and even a past student’s thesis. Collaboration is key.” The CAP can inform other offices and organizations on campus in their decision-making, to ensure that every aspect of life at Vassar can be the least taxing on the environment as possible.
Student support for the CAP will also be necessary to ensure it is successful, as will taking initiative to reduce personal impact on the environment. Falino opined, “I think sustainability is a great way for students to get involved with a social justice issues on campus and have an impact on how Vassar and its administration sets goals and marks progress. It allowed me to interact in meetings with administrators and realize that students are necessary to advocate for these initiatives to succeed.” The Office of Sustainability campaigns assure students that while they can definitely make small changes in their own lives to help conserve energy and resources, the CAP reminds them that they are part of a larger community for which every member should take some responsibility. Vassar itself is one individual institution among many in the nation working towards carbon neutrality. Hall asserted, “[W]e’re not working on this alone. New York City wants to reduce their emissions by 80 percent by 2050. There’s a goal to have half of New York state’s power come from renewable sources by 2030. We can now say we’re one of 600-plus other colleges that have made goals like this.”
The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is increasingly in the national and global conversation, but the concept that these actions are imperative is not globally or even nationally ubiquitous. The hope that many organizations and institutions in the movement have is that their vocal and public advocacy will help convince governments to take actions. “I think we’re at a stage in the country and globally where leadership matters,” Hall affirmed. “[M]yself and a few of my colleagues at a few other colleges, Swarthmore, Yale and elsewhere, have been having regular conversations about how we advocate nationally for carbon pricing and larger-scale policy initiatives that would potentially be some ways to curb carbon emissions on a larger scale. I think that’s something colleges are well-suited to do. Why does NYC care, why does any major city care? In the absence of national leadership, this is one way we can be role models and inspire larger change.” Falino agreed, “Colleges and universities come in to show that [institutional change] is possible, to collaborate with one another, and to contribute best practices to the greater, governmental dialogue on how we need to change to live more sustainably.”
In the end, the success of the CAP and of larger-scale progressive environmental policies, from the college campus to the national scale, will depend on intersectional collaboration and creative thought about how to make effective and rapid changes to protect the environment.