The ACUPCC: Five years of Climate Leadership

This year the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) celebrates five years, a milestone for the more than 650 signatory colleges and universities who have embarked on the ambitious goal of transforming higher education through climate leadership and education for sustainability. By signing the Commitment, ACUPCC signatories are required to engage in comprehensive planning, disseminating, and publicly reporting on their campuses’ activities and progress on the ACUPCC Reporting System. In just five years, the ACUPCC has grown from 12 founding presidents to a network of campuses that includes 6.5M students, more than 12,000 staff, and institutions from every state and the District of Columbia. The cumulative impact of their work is only now being realized, with progress in every area of campus achievement.

The ACUPCC five-year report, “Celebrating Five Years of Climate Leadership: The Progress and Promise of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment,” published in June and available for download, highlights data collected from 1,583 greenhouse gas inventories, 465 climate action plans, and 235 progress reports — submitted in January by the first cohort of signatories after four years of developing and implementing their climate action plans. The reports demonstrate significant successes in both emissions reductions and transforming the educational experience: 130 signatories are collectively producing over 171,000,000 kWh annually from renewable energy, the equivalent of powering 14,702 American households’ annual electricity needs, and in just five short years, the network has reduced gross greenhouse gas emissions (total scopes 1, 2, and 3) by 10.2M MtCO2e and is projected to reduce 50 percent of its gross emissions in the next 15 years. In addition, 114 institutions currently promote programs to engage students in climate and/or sustainability research projects, and more than 9,548 sustainability-focused programs and courses are being offered at 198 campuses combined.

While there are many exemplary stories from the first five years of the initiative, the efforts of the following four ACUPCC campuses reflect the commitment of the entire network to create and maintain sustainable campuses, and provide the education necessary to prepare students for the challenges of tomorrow.

Maricopa Community College District, Arizona
Integrating Sustainability Into the Curriculum
With more than 260,000 students, the Maricopa Community College District (MCCD) is the largest community college district in the U.S. The foundation of education for sustainability at the Maricopa Community College District began in 2008, when institutions within the District formed a system-wide “Sustainability Network.” Since then, the network has provided staff, faculty, and students with education around necessary sustainability solutions. Interactive activities including National Teach-In and Dialogue Days throughout the District’s many campuses have helped facilitate discussions on how the District could infuse sustainability concepts in the classroom and through extra- and co-curricular activities.

Integration is felt in the core curriculum, too. Chandler-Gilbert Community College, one of the 12 MCCD campuses and the first community college in Arizona to spearhead the integration of sustainability into the curriculum, now offers a certificate program called “Sustainability and Ecological Literacy.” Faculty at the Maricopa Community Colleges have also formed an Interdisciplinary Sustainability Instructional Council to develop sustainability-focused courses and programs in various study concentrations (sciences, social sciences, humanities, career, and technical). Currently, there are three certificate programs on sustainability, seven energy and environmental-related courses, and 14 sustainability-focused courses being shared and offered among all campuses in the District.

The University of Oregon
Reducing Institutional Energy Consumption and Carbon Emissions

According to Steve Mital, the University of Oregon’s sustainability director, “The University has a 295-acre campus with 6,500,000 sq. ft. of building space. Increasing student demand is driving an expected 10 percent increase in building space over the next decade. However, the University (UO) has a commitment to not purchase or consume any additional energy.”

Since adopting a Climate Action Plan in 2010, UO has established strategic operational goals towards achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In August 2011, the University adopted the Oregon Model for Sustainable Development, which calls on the campus to cap its overall energy consumption despite significant expected growth. The model requires all new buildings on campus to be certified USGBC LEED Gold and 35 percent more efficient than the state of Oregon’s requirement. The University projects that energy efficiency initiatives in older existing buildings will supply 100 percent of the energy required by the new buildings.

Their progress is already evident. According to UO’s recently submitted progress report, the University has reduced its annual greenhouse gas emissions each year for the past three years. The challenges will, however, continue. As illustrated in a video developed by UO’s Office of Sustainability on the institution’s energy planning and management, natural gas is currently used to heat campus buildings and accounts for 53 percent of the total energy used on UO’s campus, and 45 percent of the total annual emissions; additionally, daily commuting and air travel by faculty, staff, and athletes, while accounting for only 10 percent of total energy use, represents 42 percent of the institution’s total emissions. Therefore, the University considers it critical to find low-carbon substitutes for natural gas to heat campus buildings and jet fuel for air travel in order to meet its net-zero emissions goal — ambitious goals for a campus that has proven ambitious plans can become reality.

Drexel University
Seeking Sustainable Solutions Through Innovative Research

Making a commitment to sustainability at Drexel University in Philadelphia goes beyond adopting best practices in institutional operations. Drexel introduces sustainability concepts directly in the learning experience. Engaging staff, faculty, and students from across the disciplines in hands-on research is an innovative component of the Drexel Green Initiative, which seeks to ensure a sustainable future for the University as well as for its community.

A unique characteristic of Drexel University’s research programs and initiatives is the deep participation of students. One example is the award-winning Drexel Smart House, which serves as a multidisciplinary “living laboratory” with the purpose of allowing students multiple ways to explore the creation of environmentally sustainable habitats for people and society. As a student-led, multidisciplinary project, Drexel Smart House is an incubator of knowledge and provides opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience in developing innovative design and cutting-edge technology in the areas of environment, energy, health, and lifestyle.

Drexel University has positioned itself as a leader for its commitment in facilitating “use-inspired” research opportunities and developing real-world applications and sustainable solutions to solve societal problems in the 21st century. This year’s Research Day, the 14th annual “celebration of research, innovation, scholarship, and creativity,” attracted hundreds of faculty and students from all disciplines of sciences, humanities, and the arts to showcase the incredible breadth of research being conducted across the University.

The University’s continuing engagement in comprehensive and innovative research activities is reflected in its success in obtaining funding for research over the years, resulting in an increase in sponsored projects from $15M in 1996 to approximately $110M today.

Tompkins County, New York
Advancing Sustainability by Fostering Community Engagement

Spearheaded by second nature’s senior advisor Peter Bardaglio, the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) is a collaborative effort among Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, the Town of Ithaca, and three ACUPCC signatory campuses (Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College). By mobilizing students to work alongside business leaders and community members, the Initiative aims to involve regional stakeholders in a plan to reduce the region’s greenhouse gas emissions through renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects.

TCCPI not only exemplifies the potential effectiveness of town-gown partnership, it also represents the logical leadership step in a climate process initiated by the ACUPCC; that is, creating long-lasting collaboration between an institution and the larger community which it is part of.

Since 2008, TCCPI has co-sponsored the Tompkins Energy Conservation Corps (TECC) with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, in which more than 60 student interns have been awarded summer internships and received hands-on experience in home energy-efficiency projects. In return, students provide energy-efficiency project assistance to community residents. Bardaglio points out in the recent TCCPI newsletter in July that, “Rather than focusing on negative messaging about the threat of climate change, the Energy Corps has tapped into the positive aspects of energy efficiency, such as strengthening community, saving money, making homes more comfortable, and supporting a local green economy, in order to inspire community-wide action.” In 2010, through TCCPI’s energy-efficiency initiatives, approximately 17,000 bags with energy-saving products and information were distributed to residents throughout Tompkins County — the largest door-to-door effort of its kind in upstate New York. Most recently, TCCPI is also a co-sponsor of the “Get Your GreenBack Tompkins,” a community-based campaign to inspire every household and business in Tompkins County to take action and save energy and money in the areas of food, waste, transportation, and heating and lighting.

In 2011, Cornell University honored TCCPI with the “Partners in Sustainability Award” for the influential presence of 
TCCPI programs in Tompkins County. Overall, TCCPI’s success in climate action through multi-sector collaboration makes the initiative an excellent model for integrating community engagement opportunities into the students’ educational experience, while building a clean-energy economy and implementing climate protection in communities.

Future Challenges for the ACUPCC
In just five years, tremendous efforts have been undertaken at signatory institutions of the ACUPCC network, making higher education the only sector in the U.S. with a critical mass committed both to the scientifically necessary goal of climate neutrality and to preparing students to develop the solutions for the changing climate.

At the same time, there is much work still to be done. As the International Energy Agency recently reported, we have just five years to make major changes to avoid locking in runaway climate change. The ACUPCC is up for the challenge. The network has set bold new goals for the next five years and is preparing new strategies to support the policies needed for success and to ensure graduates are educated to create a healthy, just, and sustainable society. The progress of the ACUPCC network thus far is an indicator of higher education’s potential to lead the shift toward creating a more sustainable society. 

Toni Nelson is the vice president of Programs for Second Nature. She can be reached via email at tnelson@secondnature.org. Van Du is the program manager for Second Nature. She can be reached at vdu@secondnature.org. Second Nature’s mission is to create a healthy, just, and sustainable society through the transformation of higher education.

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