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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.



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