A Safer Planet, Planned
On Columbia’s new sustainability promises.
By Elizabeth Jackson
Every year, the climate asks us what it will take for us to get serious about protecting the Earth. Every year, a longer California fire season, more devastating Florida hurricanes, a more stifling heat wave (somewhere, everywhere). Every year, I wonder if I’ve seen the last cool October, the last month of in-between days separating throat-closing heat from parka-wearing wind. “It’s been this warm in March before, right?” I ask my enduringly patient father; as though to say, “I know the climate is changing but please, please, not so fast.”
After years of climate protests, negotiations, and both grassroots and high-profile organizing, we’ve thankfully seen bolder government commitments to reduce emissions over the past year. However, these commitments must be made even more ambitious if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and, maybe even more importantly, governments and private entities alike must be more explicit about the concrete mechanisms they will implement to achieve their goals.
Columbia University has increased its emphasis on climate action since the beginning of last year, announcing its intent to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The University also announced the formation of the Climate School and its direct divestment from fossil fuels. These important actions and commitments have been met by similar questions about whether and how the University’s heightened commitment to sustainability would be reflected in its own operations. This past Earth Day, Columbia offered an answer to these questions by unveiling its latest sustainability plan.
Dubbed “Plan 2030,” this collection of initiatives follows up on the University’s inaugural 2017-2020 plan as part of its commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The net-zero commitment covers all emissions defined as greenhouse gases under the Kyoto Protocol, one of the earliest global agreements to limit GHG emissions. The University also breaks down its emissions into three categories: Scope 1 emissions are GHG emissions directly produced by Columbia sources, like campus fleet vehicles or boilers in its buildings; Scope 2 emissions are “indirect emissions from the consumption of purchased electricity, steam, heating, and cooling”; and Scope 3 emissions are all other indirect emissions, like faculty travel and investments. Plan 2030 sets interim targets for emissions reduction, expressed as percentages of 2019 emissions: 15% reduction by 2025, 42% by 2030, and 63% by 2035. Such targets are essential on the road to net zero, to avoid procrastination on important emissions reduction measures.
Columbia reports its emissions through The Climate Registry, a non-profit organization that provides tools, including reporting mechanisms, to help organizations transparently reduce their emissions. Assistant Vice President in the Office of Environmental Stewardship Jessica Prata explained that OES collects and compiles data annually on all of Columbia’s emissions sources (including electricity usage and commuter emissions) into a Greenhouse Gas Inventory. From there, Columbia calculates its emissions based on widely used standards publicized by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and submits its data and calculations to TCR, which requires the University to hire a third-party verifier for the data. Columbia has engaged in this process since 2017. As Sustainable Development Professor Jason Smerdon discussed, in addition to independent verification, this transparency is “the best way for anything like this to have true accountability and oversight.”
Campus energy consumption is responsible for 99% of total Scope 1 and 2 emissions, making this area absolutely crucial to achieving Columbia’s net-zero goal. The best method to reduce emissions associated with energy consumption is obvious: consume less energy. Columbia plans to decrease consumption by implementing greater efficiency measures, including updated efficiency standards for new buildings and building retrofits, “fuel-related improvements in efficiency” like more effective insulation for steam pipes, and “electricity-related improvements in efficiency,” like replacing existing light fixtures with LED bulbs.
Through “strategic electrification,” Columbia will transition its fossil fuel-based systems, like heating, to clean energy-powered electric systems. Currently, centralized fossil fuel-based heating and cooling plants serve the 65 buildings on the Morningside campus; these buildings account for approximately 60% of Columbia’s Morningside+ Scope 1 emissions. Columbia is set to undertake a Central Plant Electrification study that will run until May 2022, which will investigate methods for electrification and energy conservation. Columbia will also need to pursue efforts to electrify its other direct sources of emissions, like natural gas stovetops in some dormitories. As the electrification strategy develops, the specifics of these initiatives will hopefully become more clear.
With Columbia’s new electrification efforts, increased demand for electricity is inevitable, and to comply with the plan, electricity must derive from a zero-emission source. Since 2018, Columbia has claimed to achieve 100% renewable electricity across its campuses, through a combination of purchased hydropower from the New York Power Authority, commissioned solar power from two solar farms serving Lamont’s local grid, and purchased National Renewable Energy Credits. Because the electrical grid interconnects many different sources of power, it is often impossible to determine the exact source of the electrons a consumer receives: As a market mechanism, RECs allow Columbia to purchase power from renewable energy generators even if that power is not physically delivered to Columbia. (A single REC represents 1MWh of renewable electricity.) The University has purchased RECs from two wind farms in central Oklahoma to compensate for the power that it purchases from the mixed-source, partially fossil-based New York grid. In the coming years, Columbia seeks to move away from purchasing RECs from far-flung generators and turn, instead, to supporting local renewable energy sources as they develop.
Professor Michael Gerrard, a member of the Senior Sustainability Advisory Committee and the plan’s Renewable Electricity Working Group, emphasized the importance of considering the ultimate impact of a purchase on the renewable energy industry. Specifically, he mentioned determining “whether the purchase is helping to finance the construction of new capacity or is just providing additional money for an existing facility” in considering a shift to local clean power from RECs generated further away. “If you’re buying a renewable energy credit from an existing wind farm in Oklahoma,” he told me, “you’re benefiting the profitability of the wind company, but you’re not leading to a net increase in renewable energy. So in order to advance the cause of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we need to contribute to the construction of new … renewable energy capacity.” He added that the construction of new generation capacity “might be facilitated or accelerated by a Columbia purchase.”
The University is also evaluating the potential to install on-site renewable energy generation, like rooftop solar panels, to fulfill some of its energy demand—but Gerrard clarified that “there’s very limited capacity” for this kind of generation on Columbia’s campuses, given the need for abundant land or large, flat roofs.
New York City’s 2019 Local Law 97 will provide a substantive enforcement mechanism for Columbia’s clean energy transition. The law “sets increasingly stringent limits on carbon emissions per square foot in 2024 and 2030” for buildings exceeding 25,000 square feet in size, and includes a maximum penalty of $268 multiplied by the amount (in metric tons) by which a building exceeds its emissions limit. Gerrard mentioned that many Columbia buildings are subject to Local Law 97, so Columbia and other large property owners are heavily incentivized to finance greater renewable energy development to ensure a sufficient clean energy supply—especially given the steep penalties for missing 2030 targets. Notably, Local Law 97 is structured to encourage the sourcing of renewable energy “generated in NYC or directly sinking into the NYC grid” to comply with obligations.
General year-by-year recommendations and important transition considerations have been laid out by the Renewable Electricity Working Group. Immediate next steps include quantifying an estimate of Columbia’s clean energy needs in the coming years, building in energy efficiency reductions and electrification increases, and investigating existing and potential alternatives to the National RECs that Columbia currently uses to compensate for its purchase of mixed-source New York City power.
Columbia will also attempt to cut emissions in the transportation realm. This includes emissions from all University vehicles, the transport of freight to and from Columbia, and the work-related travel of Columbia affiliates.
Plan 2030 sets the goal of reducing emissions from on-campus vehicle fleets to zero by 2037 by requiring replacement of retired department vehicles with either hybrid or electric models between now and 2027, and with exclusively electric models between 2027 and 2037. These new vehicles will also contribute to the University’s increased electricity demand, further underscoring the importance of the clean energy transition.
The University will encourage lower-carbon methods of commuting through telecommuting and carpooling, installing more EV charging infrastructure, and working with the city and state to improve pedestrian and cyclist conditions. There is as yet a notable absence of detail in the plan regarding how the University will incentivize greater adoption of remote work once public health restrictions have been lifted.
Similarly, for business travel, Columbia’s current plan focuses on expanding digital alternatives. When in-person gatherings are essential, the University will also more actively communicate lower-carbon travel options for getting there. However, whether employees adopt these travel methods largely depends on individual choices, which are difficult to account for and regulate. Long-haul transport is also one of the more challenging areas to decarbonize globally. With this apparently in mind, the plan states Columbia’s intent to “offset emissions from University sponsored business travel” if such emissions cannot be mitigated.
Offsets are a contentious solution, given that they do not usually represent absolute emissions reduction. Rather, offset projects generally involve paying for some means of negative emissions, like planting trees or conserving natural resources, to absorb or compensate for continued emissions. International offset projects, in particular, are also notoriously difficult to verify in terms of continued legitimacy (e.g., whether the trees I am paying to conserve actually remain protected from logging) and additionality (e.g., whether those trees were in any danger of logging in the first place). Given these issues, Gerrard expressed his “hope that offsets will be a last resort.”
Though Plan 2030 leaves open the possibility of using both local and global offsets to contribute to interim targeted emissions reductions, Columbia states that it will not use offsets to meet its 2050 net-zero targets. Smerdon also mentioned an awareness among University affiliates that “some offsets are better than others,” specifically referencing Columbia’s commitment to only purchasing offsets that “voluntarily submit to third-party verification.” The plan also states the University’s intent to prioritize local offset projects to provide local “co-benefits to Columbia’s immediate surroundings and community” and be more easily verifiable.
The Water Conservation and Capture section of Plan 2030 is sparser, and mostly presents the University’s broader goals, like working with campus sustainability groups to reduce water consumption in residence halls, encouraging students and faculty to “use the campus as a living lab to drive water reduction solutions,” and integrating “water reduction goals” into campus decisions regarding product purchasing and structural design and maintenance. Mechanisms for achieving these goals, as well as greater detail about the goals themselves, are currently absent from the plan and will ideally be fleshed out as the University moves forward with implementation.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Columbia Water Center was not involved in the development of the Sustainability Plan. In fact, when we spoke, Professor Upmanu Lall, director of the Water Center, was not aware of any prospect of involvement as the University enacts the plan. However, Prata, of the Office of Environmental Stewardship, later called the Water Center an “important partner moving forward,” indicating a potential disconnect between departments that will hopefully be resolved in the coming months.
Columbia’s ability to decide on the sources of its water is limited by the legal requirement that it obtain water from the city, so, as Lall explained, the best opportunities for greater sustainable water use lie in stormwater and wastewater initiatives. More sustainable water use may also result in energy benefits to the University.
Specifically referencing the Manhattanville campus, Lall mentioned that “any wastewater that is generated has to be pumped up to the treatment plant on 143rd Street to be treated and then discharged. So that requires quite a bit of energy.” He also explained that because the Manhattanville campus is a “new build,” “the amount of wastewater being generated on that plot of land today is substantially lower than what’s going to be generated once that campus is operational,” which prompts the question of whether the additional volume of untreated water, especially during extreme weather events, may strain the existing capacity of the 143rd Street treatment plant. Though presumably, analysis has been done to ensure that the facility is sufficiently equipped, if Columbia were to develop on-site systems for capturing, treating, and reusing stormwater and wastewater, the University could mitigate some of its energy consumption while avoiding overloading the off-site treatment facility.
Lall also said that New York City is “very interested in subsidizing wastewater treatment developments,” and referenced eight buildings that treat their own wastewater and generate net revenue for doing so. While Lall has presented ideas for on-site treatment to the University, there had not been any follow-up to those proposals as of our conversation.
Student Engagement and Communication
Undergraduate and graduate students, often among the most vocal sustainability advocates at Columbia, were represented on nearly every working group involved in creating the latest sustainability plan. Moving forward, students have key roles to play in changing campus culture to align with the University’s sustainability ambitions. For these students, Columbia’s campus is a “living lab,” as the plan calls it—a place to develop innovative and practical mechanisms for achieving greater sustainability.
The Campus Culture Student Group associated with the plan focused on improving sustainability literacy on campus, beginning with constructing a definition of sustainability that would resonate with all students, regardless of their backgrounds or focus areas. Group member Isabelle Seckler, CC ’23, explained that a key potential opportunity for disseminating sustainability information involves integrating that information into “pre-existing modes of training” mandated for students, like NSOP presentations and semesterly modules for club executive boards. Seckler has many ideas for increasing sustainable consciousness at Columbia—including a scripted series of short videos centering sustainability in a campus and neighborhood context. Additionally, she mentioned the utility of a virtual, app-based Toolkit, which would allow students to track Columbia’s progress against its own sustainability metrics. The Toolkit would also encourage students to transform online activity like watching informational videos into tangible advocacy by connecting them with sustainability initiatives on campus.
Smerdon underscored communicating sustainability efforts as a main area of improvement for the University, in addition to accelerating their implementation. Somewhat similar to Seckler’s Toolkit idea, Smerdon mentioned scannable signs around campus, which would provide students with immediate information concerning efforts like energy efficiency and landscaping practices.
Smerdon and Seckler both mentioned options for student engagement in Columbia’s existing sustainability structure, both through student groups and through designated University fora: The Earth Institute regularly hosts Climate Cafés, and working groups like the Campus Culture Student Group encourage student participation. Smerdon also discussed the importance of students as activists, saying that their crucial role is “to continually remind us to reach for the stars, set aspirational targets, be our moral conscience, and really encourage … the University community to not become complacent.” He also emphasized the importance of remembering, in the face of broadly understandable depression about the climate crisis, “that we have agency,” citing the Sunrise Movement as an example of a student organization that has successfully escalated the conversation around climate efforts.
Materials Management, Design, and Circularity
In Plan 2030, Columbia promises to align with New York City’s goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2030. To divert waste from landfills, Columbia will expand its organics collection and assemble a committee of industry experts to set standards for waste reduction. Columbia will also foreground its zero waste goals at large University events, which will raise the profile of the initiative.
When considering the validity of zero waste claims, we must be sure to investigate the accounting mechanisms that back them up. Specifically, Professor Athanasios Bourtsalas, lecturer in Energy and Materials, underscored a common confusion around collection and diversion rates. He explained that a city or institution may claim to have achieved 100% recycling, for example, but this percentage generally refers to the waste collected, rather than the waste that actually gets recycled, due to inefficiencies in the recycling process. When pursuing the goal of landfilling zero waste, Columbia must be sure to track its waste beyond collection, which it could do through direct contracts with an organization like the Sims recycling facility and, potentially, a waste-to-energy plant (for processing any smaller fraction of waste that cannot be recycled or composted), rather than contracts that only involve the New York City Department of Sanitation or private haulers.
Regarding organics and recycling, one forthcoming Columbia initiative is a pilot waste collection program for many Columbia-owned apartment buildings. Under the program, the DSNY and Columbia will distribute separate bags to the apartment buildings that are participating in the program—one each for organics, recyclables (single-stream), and non-recyclables/compostables. The program allots a particular number of each type of bag, measured by volume, to each building.
Bourtsalas, leader of the program, highlighted a common problem with organics collection for practical applications like the manufacture of fertilizer: Organics are often at risk of contamination from metal, glass, and plastic. Contamination of recyclables by non-recyclables or organics may similarly impede their processing. The Columbia-DSNY program seeks to combat contamination through regular inspections of organic waste by building superintendents and program leaders. Bags of recyclables may also be inspected. If inspected bags are found to be contaminated, fines can be assessed on a per-building basis. If a building exceeds its allotment of bags for non-recyclables and requests more, the building will be charged a fee, thus encouraging residents to make greater use of organics/recyclables bags. Bourtsalas explained that similar programs in Milan and Korea led to a 20-60% increase in separated organics collection from food waste over five to six years.
Columbia also seeks to ensure that its retail tenants align with its sustainability efforts. Smerdon, a member of the Retail Tenant Alignment Committee, mentioned that a strategy for ensuring retail tenant participation is incorporating sustainability expectations into the contracts that tenants sign with Columbia. The Materials Management section of Plan 2030 specifically references a requirement that tenants adhere to “University waste-hauling practices” and to reporting requirements based on University-defined sustainability metrics.
As it stands, Plan 2030 primarily emphasizes waste diversion at the end of a product’s life. This stage, however, is only one part of the broader ideal of the circular economy, which also incorporates actions like repair, reuse, and sustainable product sourcing. In discussing Barnard’s independent sustainability efforts, Professor Sandra Goldmark, Director of Campus Sustainability and Climate Action, highlighted Barnard’s emphasis on a holistic view of waste. “I don’t think we should only be thinking about waste at the end of the pipeline,” she said. “I think we need to think about waste right from the beginning: what we buy, and where we get it from, and how much we buy used, et cetera.” Through its Circular Campus initiative, Barnard emphasizes internal reuse (i.e., exchanging and repurposing goods within the campus). To this end, it recently launched a partnership with the platform Rheaply, which allows Barnard affiliates to advertise and exchange unwanted “materials and supplies.” Prata mentioned Columbia’s willingness to collaborate with Barnard on circular economy and reuse initiatives moving forward, leaving the door open to a possible partnership between the two administrations in this and other sustainability areas.
Putting It in Perspective
As with all sustainability commitments and planned initiatives, we must ask ourselves whether Plan 2030 reflects the urgency and scope of the crisis at hand. The sustainability experts I spoke with were generally impressed by the ambition and comprehensiveness of Plan 2030. They saw it largely as a positive extension of Columbia’s earlier sustainability efforts. However, Smerdon commented that organizations like Columbia should always be striving to do more and on a faster timeline. He offered a sobering and important reminder about how we should view even generally positive sustainability efforts. “One thing that I hope about these kinds of measures is that they don’t breed complacency within the community,” he said. In his view, everyone at the University should see Plan 2030 as a set of “ important first steps” and an important example of “working in the right direction. But if you’re not running around like your hair’s on fire over this issue, you’re not doing enough.”