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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Nine sustainability wins, no matter how you voted

By Dave Newport

The smoke (and mirrors) from a too-long and too-fractious election season is clearing, finally. Our nation appears evenly but deeply divided and in need of healing. But however you voted, there are significant sustainability-related wins for all of us:

1. Sustainable family time. With the carpet-bombing of political ads now over, we can stop cussing at the television or radio and getting angry. We can re-appreciate our partners and children, that puppies are still warm and cuddly, and, hopefully, that we are snug in cozy homes. Not matter how Election Day turned out for you, remember those who you love.

2. Sustainable friendships. Hopefully, you have some friends who are on the other side of the political aisle (if not, you need to get out more). Maybe you crossed swords on Facebook, or held back so as not to offend. Maybe there were words or hard feelings. OK, now it’s time to get back to what counts: people. Get your friends back. Take them to coffee, dinner, something stronger. But politics is more harmful than helpful if it divides us. We tried that in 1861 and it was awful. Remember, we are Americans. It’s a right we take for granted that we can be opinionated, strident, and even offensive. Thanks goodness for that. So, take a friend from the other side to lunch, and argue over who pays.

3. Sustainable politics. No matter who won, no matter how bleak or bright it seems right now, it will change. Politics is like the weather; whatever it is now, it will change, just wait. The political pendulum is immutable. If you are happy now, darker times will come. Sorry. If you are glum now, better days are ahead. Joy. It’s just true. This is good for sustainability because when leadership ignores us, the pressure builds. And when we have leadership the pressure helps us get more done.

4. Sustainable democracy. The US is noted for the peaceful transition or reaffirmation of power. No guns, no tanks in Tiananmen Square. The United States, for all its faults, has a pretty clean record. No coups. Only one Civil War. No de facto coups such as Putin’s disgraceful repudiation of Russia’s nascent democracy. Only one questionable election. Some voter suppression here and there. But by and large, we yell and scream and get mad, and in the end we keep the peace and move on.

5. Sustainable gridlock. OK, that sounds cynical but it’s exactly what the Founding Fathers designed. They called it checks and balances. And it survives; the Congress is split between parties. As ugly and stupid as that split appears when our federal politicians blame the other party for the latest boondoggle, it is better than a dictatorship. So no matter who is sleeping in the White House on January 20, their magic wand will have limited powers.

6. Sustainable social equity. For only the second time in US history, the winning president/vice-president ticket came from all under-represented groups, at least in terms of electoral history. Two Catholics, a Mormon and an African-American were in the field. We had the choice to elect a Mormon president for the first time in US history, or re-elect an African-American president for the first time. That has never happened before. We have had only one Catholic president, John Kennedy. Now, for only the second time, we have a Catholic vice-president. These achievements alone are hopeful signs of Americans’ improving cultural and religious tolerance--and we have a ways to go. Still waiting for our first women… but at least two have made it to their parties’ tickets.

7. Sustainable education. Despite recent anti-intellectual demagoguery emerging from various constituencies, our next president has a graduate degree from Harvard. While that alone does not prove we value education, it’s a start. Our vice-president attended good universities. Whether you agree with the team that was elected, both have achieved success as a result of their education along with hard work and ambition. That is just what our educational system is supposed to catalyze.  We hope that the next “current occupants” will remember their roots to power and continue to support others’ paths through the greatest higher educational system in the world. That starts with support and reforms for a K-12 system that needs some work—and feeds our universities. Because without excellence in education, sustainability is toast.

8. Sustainability lives! Lost during the campaign was any serious discussion of climate change, adaptation, or sustainability. Sadly, it took Hurricane Sandy to change that, but at least sustainability is back on the radar. Now the restoration of the NJ and NY areas will go for years and keep climate change, sea level rise, and adaptation in the conversation. The current occupants can’t ignore that population base so expect federal and state task forces and commissions to offer plans ranging from hurricane dams to water supply protections to carbon mitigation policies. Yes, it took an unfortunate wake up call for the pols to get it, so let’s not let them forget that Nature bats last.

9. Sustainable blessings. There are probably many people on this planet that know or care little about the US election—and they are doing just fine. But there are many more people on the planet who also know or care little about our election and for whom getting through today will be a life and death struggle. For them, survival is all that matters. We should take a few moments to count our blessings and then get back to work helping the world become a better place. 

For while we Americans have our flaws and foibles, we really are the greatest nation the world has ever seen. We got here by being an inclusive, supportive place founded by the world’s tired and poor in the name of religious freedom. We knocked out a Native American culture but have come to regret that. We fought hard to overcome slavery. We included women in the right to vote. We desegregated our schools. We made it a crime to hurt in the name of hate. We are trending towards including any loving couple as a marriage. We finally let soldiers of any sexual orientation serve their country proudly. We generally fight about equality and against oppression domestically, and in war. 

Sure, there are exceptions and ugliness and we make many mistakes. Yes, we are very divided politically right now, but we all yearn for unity. And our history confirms and compels a forward trajectory of human compassion and hope in a world where too few see either. 

Bottom line: the US has all the qualities and assets necessary to lead the world to a sustainable future—and that agenda grows stronger every day. No matter who is elected, sustainability is not easy work.  But as President John F. Kennedy said, “we chose to do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”  

So, let’s get back to work.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Can we build our way to zero?

by Dave Newport

The old riddle asks, “What gets bigger as you remove from it?” The answer, of course, is a hole in the ground.

The flip side of that question portends a troubling reality for campuses that are growing while trying to get their carbon emissions to zero. 

“What gets smaller as you add to it?”

Indeed, how do we build more campus facilities—and at the same time fulfill pledges of carbon neutrality?

According to recent research into presidents’ sustainability-related perspectives, economic pressures are driving presidents to grow their institutions in order to increase enrollment-related revenues while enhancing affordability. This will inevitably put pressure on the campus to build costly new facilities to help attract and support increasing student populations. In addition to amplifying facilities management’s challenges and deferred maintenance costs, that growth can increase direct and indirect carbon emissions. Yet at the same time, many campuses are also trying to meet carbon emission-reduction goals.

The effect of this enrollment growth on quality also vexes the presidents; they worry that increasing class sizes and decreased ability to deliver solid student services will erode the overall quality of academic achievement and student life. Presidents may also have committed to carbon reduction goals such as the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), which asks campuses to enhance literacy in climate change and sustainability issues. Any erosion of a campus’ ability to deliver on its academic mission will, of course, undercut efforts to enhance climate and sustainability literacy, too.

Counting carbon gets tougher
Against this backdrop, the World Resources Institute (WRI) recently revised the reference method by which we all measure our indirect greenhouse gas (GHG)emissions, the so-called Scope 3 emissions that result when we, for example, fly in a jet airliner, drive a car to work, or build new facilities. The net effect of WRI’s proposed new methods will be to reveal many more of the indirect carbon emission sources that campuses enable by their purchasing, construction, services, and travel.

The bad news from at least a preliminary look at WRI’s new standard as applied to campus carbon emissions is that construction activities appear to be quite significant sources of previously unreported GHGs.

The University of California Berkeley released a preliminary analysis of its carbon inventory as quantified by the new WRI method and found that “construction, at 80,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalent (MTCO2e) is the largest source of unreported emissions (37 percent) and the second-largest source of emissions overall, accounting for 17 percent of UC Berkeley’s total carbon footprint.” While the report cautions that more research is necessary, about $144 million worth of capital construction projects resulted in some 80,000 MTCO2e —over three times the EPA minimum reporting threshold of Scope 1 emissions.

Some might say that net-zero buildings must become mainstream if we are to address this issue. Indeed, net-zero buildings are touted as not requiring outside energy in order to operate—and not contributing any carbon emissions during the life of the structure. All good concepts.

However, net-zero buildings do not address carbon embedded in the manufacture of the materials used in the structures. The new WRI rule asks campuses to quantify carbon embedded in construction materials as part their Scope 3 carbon inventory. Hence, the UC Berkeley results will probably not be alone in the future. Some estimates conclude that carbon emissions directly from construction activities and indirectly embedded in materials are as high as 15 percent of all US GHG emissions.

Cement production to make concrete is perhaps the chief culprit. Widely used, concrete alone accounts for 2 percent to 3 percent of total US GHG emissions. This is not entirely due to the energy it takes to produce cement, but to the cement production process itself which liberates CO2 in a chemical reaction. Worldwide, cement production accounts for 5 percent of global GHGs. Given the ongoing campus building boom and the increasing use of concrete, this is not good news.

Even in a bad economy, colleges and universities spent $17.8 billion on construction in 2008, up from $12.7 billion the year before, according to American School and University’s thirty-fifth annual Official Education Construction Report.Educational construction (including K-12) in 2012 was projected at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $66 billion, according to the Department of Commerce.

So if UC Berkeley’s ratio of $144 million of construction produces 80,000 MTCO2e is more or less average, then $17.8 billion of campus construction in 2008 produced nearly ten million MTCO2e. That is roughly equal to the total GHG emissions (all scopes) from 125 campuses the size of UC Berkeley.

So what is a college president to do?
The presidents surveyed in the research agreed that sustainability is an essential and top priority in campus buildings, and that academic programming and role modeling sustainability were top activities in a campus achieving sustainability. They also agreed that financial barriers were the chief impediments preventing sustainability’s implementation. From these conflicting priorities the presidents’ quandary emerges: can we grow to increase revenues and still create an affordable, sustainable, carbon neutral campus that produces sustainability-literate grads?

First, campuses need to be sure they are proceeding correctly on the basics of sustainability as it relates to resource conservation. The “reduce, reuse, recycle” maxim’s analog for carbon reduction is “conservation, efficiency, renewables.” That hierarchy is not rocket science—but is pretty much immutable:

1.     Conservation: includes turning off energy loads, and not creating energy loads—or not building a building—unless the case is so compelling that the load or building must happen. This means engaging in hard work like changing peoples’ mindsets about what constitutes a “clean, well-lighted place” (apologies to Hemingway’s short story of the same name), or the harder work of telling a rich donor who wants to fund an unnecessary structure so it can be named after him, “no thank you.” Perhaps distance learning is a significant—and profitable—element of this approach, too.

2.     Efficiency: includes ensuring necessary energy loads are the minimum possible through efficient fixtures, effective insulation and sealing, and clever design. It also includes staying out of the efficiency trap that can result from falling in love with clever design and techno-widgets, thereby driving up energy loads.

3.     Renewables: the Holy Grail of campus sustainability. Until we figure out how to power all campus needs directly with renewables, the use of this source of energy will remain marginal. Campuses need utility-scale availability of renewable electricity and sources for heat and cooling. For many, that is difficult because campus space is insufficient to install adequate systems to power, heat, and cool facilities. Likewise, off-site transmission is legislatively difficult in many places. Cost is also a significant barrier. All the more reason to do steps one and two as much as possible.

Of course, none of the above reduces the indirect Scope 3 emissions from construction materials used in new or renovated facilities. That is more difficult. Design professionals tout reusability as a beginning to this answer. For instance, instead of concrete, use reusable stones and bricks; instead of custom-welded iron girders, use standard sized bolt-together beams that can be refurbished and used anew in a subsequent structure. Rinker Hall at theUniversity of Florida is built in this manner.

Perhaps a more significant answer will come, ironically, from the recession economics that are helping drive the presidents’ angst. Perhaps we are beginning to realize that recession economics are the new normal. Nobody is predicting a return to the flamboyant pre-recession wasteful economies of the last few decades. Perhaps this reality will help mitigate peoples’ expectations of a modern campus where everything is shiny and new. But don’t count on it.

A few years ago, one campus facilities expert called it the “Disney-fication of the American college campus.” Today we see opulent campus residence halls, dining facilities, recreation centers, and so forth all designed to help woo students to enroll. It is no secret that campus facilities are a recruiting tool.

At war with the Disney-fication trend are students’ increased expectation of a sustainable campus—and the increasing realization that prospective students are making buying decisions based on their sense of campus sustainability. Green as a recruiting driver will be facilitated all the more with the emerging proliferation of campus sustainability metrics such as STARS and the various green rankings breaking out all over on websites and magazines. Yet campuses will not be able to have it both ways: good green metrics and sprawling facilities driving up carbon emissions. That level of widespread transparency and awareness may be only a few years away.

Campuses need a new value proposition based on sustainability, not growth alone

For higher education the only way to zero carbon is to build sustainability into the fabric of the academe in ways we have not even discovered yet. The creativity and synergies that would flow from a robust revision of campus business models could power innovation and carbon reductions that make switching from incandescent to compact fluorescent light bulbs look like the baby steps they are.

For higher education to fulfill its promise—for it to survive perhaps—our vexed presidents must foster these fundamental discussions crucial to us all. Campuses need to establish sustainability as job one. Campuses need CSOs—Chief Sustainability Officers. Somebody needs to be in the room with campus leaders in order to inject sustainability concepts into decision making.

Although higher education has been successful with a business model that has not changed much, the Earth is crying out for a new business model. The old model has helped deliver us to the precipice at whose edge we stand today. Higher education’s role is to inform that new business model and its practitioners—and we need to get moving. For as much as things have changed in the last five years, look for even more profound change in the next five.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Does the Ivory Tower wall off sustainability?

By Dave Newport

Transparency. Accountability. Openness. Diversity. Inclusion. Justice.

Those of us in campus sustainability say—and use—those words and principles a lot. We teach that these concepts are required elements of any sustainable project, program, or organization. Even the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) supports many of these elements as best practices for boards.

Yet as recent events have reminded us, few campus boards fold those practices into the machinations of their own governance processes. For instance, the University of Virginia and Penn State sagas keynoted a very bad year for the cloistered, elite, and opaque governance apparatchik typical of college boards.   

As an unabashed sustainability proponent, I wonder how last summer’s news might have played out if those boards had embraced the principles above. Other colleges tout their sustainability programs, but can sustainability thrive on campuses when its central tenets are anathema to academe’s insular governance paradigm? Moreover, how do most boards measure up to those tenets?

Diversity: Campus leaders frequently talk about the importance of diversity. However, campus trustees are still predominately rich old white males.

As The Chronicle (CHE) recently reported, more than three-quarters of trustees are white, male trustees out number women two to one, and a vast majority are over 50. Bottom line: trustees are getting whiter and richer while our nation gets more diverse and poorer, the Chronicle noted.

If colleges are serious about making their boards more diverse – as they often say they want to – they could eliminate some of the “old white guy” board slots. This is not about quotas. It’s about the worldview that dominates governance discussions. Is it solely the business-centric, white privileged worldview, or can a culturally diverse, people-centric worldview get in a few words?

Transparency: Transparency is a foundational principle of sustainability because it builds trust between organizations and their stakeholders. For today’s boards, seemingly preoccupied with protecting campus brand, robust transparency should be the default as trust underpins reputation and brand. Yet recent foibles indicate that boards have an aversion to transparency that is unrealistic; in a WikiLeaks world, secrets will surface.

Accountability: Once installed, trustees can occupy a chair for however long their bylaws or state rules allow. Rarely is a trustee uninstalled or even publically evaluated. The Chronicle frequently reports on presidents resigning or getting ousted, but trustees are rarely vanquished.

AGB and others recommend board self-evaluations. Yet it is unclear how vigorously boards heed this advice. Indeed, given their low resignation or termination rates, one might conclude that either virtually all trustees are performing well—or their accountability process is ineffective. 

Inclusion: If the only trustees at the table are the elites, decisions are less informed -- and less accepted by stakeholders. For sustainable outcomes, a range of cultures, communities, and age groups need a place in the process. Sustainability calls it “active inclusion.”

David Crockett, former sustainability director for Chattanooga, Tenn., had a “shoe test” for inclusion: At the start of any meeting, look under the table at the shoes. If they are all wingtips and oxfords, stop the meeting and also include people who wear work boots, sneakers, and flip-flops.

Openness: Four states directly elect public institutions’ trustees in general elections. For remaining states, governors appoint 77 percent of trustees. Of course, appointees usually come from a governor’s political party, or have raised money or worked for the state leader. Patronage is alive and well.

For private institutions, fewer legal covenants prescribe board composition so a different kind of patronage ensues -- they call it “self-perpetuating.” New board candidates -- often successful businessmen or alumni ­­-- have strong campus ties, pockets full of cash, or wealthy friends. Installation is a private affair in closed meetings.

These secretive, patronage-driven paths blunt sustainability. A lack of stakeholder involvement in the process limits perspectives and buy-in. A bias towards the rich and powerful disconnects from reality. White privilege is self-perpetuated -- and thus board vision remains insular.

Justice: Historically, perhaps the most notable social justice advocacy by college boards was in opposition to apartheid. More than 150 college boards voted to divest of South African-related investment. However, the routine vetting of campus investment into socially responsible investment (SRI) has not followed. While the nation’s SRI industry has grown to over $3-trillion, campuses have not kept up, the Chronicle reports.

Today’s college boards seem to understand their fiduciary responsibilities as separate from their social-justice responsibilities.

Reforms: What might open the Ivory Tower’s doors to full sustainability?

For starters, trustees should be installed in sunshine, not shadows. That process should include input from knowledgeable, active, and diverse people from a range of community interests and incomes. Under an open process (which could tear down town-gown walls), colleges would get broader perspectives, create more strategic conversations, and foster a sense of collective responsibility between the campus and its community.

This new openness, focused on more than just the institutions’ wealthiest patrons, could bolster the colleges’ commitments to socially responsible investment and action – with profound benefits. The University of Florida and Yale have addressed social justice and inclusion by, say, supporting low-income housing weatherization and energy efficiency efforts. They have gotten carbon reductions and good will from the efforts — all while creating jobs and student-service opportunities.

Finally, management literature amply details the most profound upside of transparency: Trust. Stakeholders including students, alumni, and donors trust organizations more when told the truth, warts and all. Failure to heed this principle devastated the UVa and Penn State boards.

Jo Ann Gora, the president of Ball State University, and Robert Koester, a professor of architecture there, have shown how to nudge boards towards sustainability tenets by keeping them informed of the latest innovations in sustainability, discussing plans in terms of their whole-system implications, and “socializing” them in the sustainability culture of the rest of the campus. As a result, Ball State has emerged as one of the leading campuses in sustainable practices. Many other writers have detailed governance reforms. AGB has been trying to gently reshape board governance for years. The tools and ideas exist.

Visionary leaders have the keys to unlock Ivory Tower doors to a new governance covenant, one informed by sustainability’s principles and practices, and thus relevant to the unprecedented challenges we face on campus—and on the planet.


DISCLAIMER: I am an old white guy. I have served on numerous private and public boards for different organizations over my career. I have never served on a college board—and after this blog I don’t expect a lot of phone calls. I am currently a part of the white supermajority on the 14-person AASHE board. I will term limit off of AASHE’s Board next year. I am decidedly not rich by US standards—but very wealthy compared to the 80% of the planet’s population that lives on <$10/day. I understand my white privilege.

NOTE 1: A session at the upcoming AASHE conference in LA will be devoted to this subject—and will feature some campus presidents, trustees, and AGB expert. More details here.

NOTE 2: Several trusted colleagues reviewed and suggested changes to this piece before publication. Helped a lot. You know who you are. Thanks very much.