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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.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Speechless in Seattle

If higher education ever was a leader in sports sustainability, we have been passed.

By Dave Newport

I was at once exhilarated and humbled—speechless as a result.

Listening to the presentations in a packed house at the Green Sports Alliance conference in Seattle, it became clear that the professional sports industry has schooled higher education in sustainability.

I expected a conference full of newbies wondering about paper vs. plastic. I got a face full of sophisticated sustainability innovation, advanced social initiatives, and lengthy philosophical discussions about “we’re making too much stuff.”

It sounded more like a Sierra Club Board meeting.

Actually, a couple of Sierra Clubers were there too—and they were famous athletes. Mike Richter, one of professional hockey’s best goalies ever, is on the Sierra Club’s board. And Stanley Cup Champion Andrew Ference, a defenseman with the Boston Bruins, gave the keynote at a big shindig at Safeco Field honoring Bud Selig, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, also present.

In Ference's compelling keynote he summarized sustainability with typical in-your-face hockey talk. A guy who rides his bike to the Boston Garden, has PV on his house, works with MIT and high school students on renewable energies--then scores goals, slams people around and gets into fights--has a very clear sense of sustainability.

"Reporters are always asking me why I do this," said this muscled up athlete/hockey enforcer. "It comes down to respect. Either you respect your kids and family, your community, and your self by getting off your ass and doing things right--or you don't."

The conference program was an amazing series of discussions ranging from operational to supply chain to foodies to social entrepreneurship to how to innovative fan empowerment efforts to how we talk about all this stuff. Three days of serial presentations that held 450 nicely dressed pro sport executives--some with enormous Super Bowl rings--and stakeholders in a very big room.

Oh, and about 6-8 campuses showed up. I know we all have football season starting--but the pro sports guys have more games than we do and they turned out in droves. 

So what’s the difference between pro sports and collegiate athletics?

First, pro sports teams are successful when they focus on their mission—so they are good at focus. They have very singular missions: make money by bringing fans to the stadiums. And they have figured out that fans come to stadiums for a variety of reasons—not only to see the home team win. Although that helps.

But delivering a fan experience that comports with fans’ values helps bring them back. And, as we all know, people increasingly relate to and want more sustainability. They want to feel good about their lives. If they can go to the stadium and recycle, eat local food, donate to the hungry, feel good that their team is part of their community AND have fun at the game, it’s all good.

The pros also know they can save money greening up their energy use, reduce waste, and the usual. They are nailing that. 

The GSA partnered with NRDC and issued a landmark report at the conference called “Game Changer: How the Sports Industry is Saving the Environment.” Huge savings, carbon reductions, and innovative efforts already in the bank.

One thing that really stuck out was the fact that all professional sports leagues in the US have begun sustainability efforts led by their commissioners. Baseball, hockey and basketball are leading the way. Heck, over 90 pro teams were at the conference.

In accepting a lifetime achievement award form the GSA, baseball commissioner Bud Selig--who has led gold medal efforts by baseball to green up their industry--took note of a commissioner's unique station to effect positive change. In his impassioned and articulate acceptance speech he justified his efforts because, "for me it was an imperative because I didn't want to squander baseball's powerful opportunity to improve the lives of the fans who love our game as much as I do."

Wish collegiate athletics had that kind of leadership.

For higher education, absent is any declaration by collegiate athletics’ overloads—the NCAA—that match the pros’ commitments. Lot's of hits on the NCAA web page about "financial sustainability," but that's it. No content on triple bottom line sustainability. Sustainability seemingly has been given one of the NCAA's infamous "death penalties."

Indeed, at the Denver AASHE conference two years ago, the NCAA rolled out an official sustainability task force for college sports. Two years later, that group has been disbanded by new NCAA president Mark Emmert, formerly the president of the University of Washington. 

NRDC threw down a blog challenge to collegiate athletics to pick up the pace.

The other thing the pros have going for them is direct connections to and support by major corporate entities—many of whom are leading corporate sustainability efforts. Aramark, REI, Starbucks, Microsoft (who just announced a corporate wide carbon neutrality goal) were all presenting their business case for sustainability. Their message: it only works if it’s embedded in the business model and value proposition of the organization. No sticking a toe in the water—full immersion is what it takes. Pro teams are doing just that.

So the pros are talking about—and achieving—changes in their value chain. They are strengthening community ties by working on local social entrepreneurship programs. Their athletes are collecting tailgaters' recyclables and talking to local schools about sustainability for marketing purposes and for role modeling. And they are empowering fans with large scale outreach and educational campaigns. 

Sounds like what higher education and collegiate athletics should be doing.

The score at halftime? We--collegiate athletics and campus sustainability professionals-- are running behind the pros. Way behind. If higher education ever was a leader in sports sustainability, we have been passed. It was exhilarating to see but humbling to realize, and made me speechless...for a time.