Feature Story

          For my feature story, I was interested in studying the efforts that Emory University has made towards sustainability as well as the challenges that it has faced. I also considered how Emory is one of many colleges and universities that has been increasingly committed to sustainability efforts. I wrote a story pitch for this assignment, and interviewed three faculty members of Emory University who worked in the Office of Sustainability Initiatives, the Environmental Science Department, and the Department of Anthropology. When writing this article, I learned more about the energy consumption reduction of Emory University. However, I also realized that Emory faces challenges in meeting these energy reduction goals because of its ties to Georgia Power. The article details the impetuses and challenges facing Emory’s commitment to sustainability as well as the commitment of other colleges and universities across the nation.

Emory, Other Universities Increase Commitment to Sustainability

 

In Raoul Hall, one of Emory University’s first-year residence halls, large, flat-screen TV monitors flash with a jumble of statistics, graphs and information to convey electricity, steam and chilled-terter consumption per resident at variable times of the day. This monitor is one of five, the rest of which are spread throughout Emory’s first- and second-year residence halls.

Along Peavine Road, the WaterHub – a building that looks like a greenhouse, surrounded by windows that let in light to feed a diverse and thriving plant and bacterial ecosystem – collects wastewater from sewers and campus buildings and recycles it into cleansed water to heat and cool buildings, according to Emory Director of Sustainability Initiatives Ciannat Howett.

In the Office of Sustainability, compost bins surround every work station, encouraging the community to take the time to sort trash.

“We are degrading the Earth’s natural systems by living the way we are,” Professor of Anthropology Peggy F. Barlett said of these facilities spread throughout Emory’s campus. “It’s natural that universities want to be at the forefront of figuring out how to change our culture.”

These are just three instances of Emory’s growing commitment to energy consumption reduction, and Emory is just a single example of the growing commitment of U.S. colleges and universities to sustainability through curriculum, facilities and social standards, according to Howett. Howett added that 57 percent of Emory’s departments offer sustainability-related courses.  

Schools such as the University of California at Irvine and the University of California at Davis received scores of 867.29 and 787.46, respectively, in a Sierra Club ranking of the greenest universities in the U.S. for 2015. The scores take into account factors such as energy consumption, vegan catering options and water initiatives, and the high marks indicate the colleges’ commitment to ensure that their campuses are sustainable.

The Sierra Club ranked the Greenest Universities in the United States for 2015, finding that the University of California at Irvine and the University of California at Davis demonstrate high sustainability efforts when compared to other colleges and universities. / Sierra Club's Ranking of the Greenest Universities in the United States for 2015 / Statista

The Sierra Club ranked the Greenest Universities in the United States for 2015, finding that the University of California at Irvine and the University of California at Davis demonstrate high sustainability efforts when compared to other colleges and universities. / Sierra Club’s Ranking of the Greenest Universities in the United States for 2015 / Statista

Emory also recently released its vision plan to outline the University’s sustainability goals for the next decade. The plan also includes goals such as reducing Emory water use by 50 percent, building solar roofs when replacements are necessary and reducing campus energy use per square foot by 50 percent and total energy use by 25 percent. Buildings will also be built with high commitment to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), according to Assistant Professor Environmental Sciences Eri Saikawa.

“Around the country, you see over and over again Emory graduates who are playing a role as leaders in sustainability,” Howett said. “The students in school today are going to be the ones [who] are going to confront [future sustainability] challenges. Students are aware, they care…  and they really want to take action.”

Emory has been a pioneer in incorporating sustainability into its curriculum, according to Howett. 14 years ago, Barlett co-founded Emory’s Piedmont Project to integrate sustainability lessons into the University’s classes and departments.

Following the creation of this program, other universities across the U.S. took action to follow in Emory’s footsteps, approaching Barlett and seeking her guidance to facilitate the creation of similar programs at their corresponding universities, Barlett said. After being inundated with phone calls from other schools, she began putting on workshops for each school to learn from her. Then, realizing that it would be easier to offer a national workshop with a congregation of all of the schools, Barlett has now gotten into a rhythm of leading bi-annual workshops for faculty leaders of other schools to learn her methods, she added.

The workshops have already trained over 500 faculty members from colleges and universities around the country and from eight foreign countries, Barlett said.

“I think there’s a very important role for universities to be incubators for baby steps [towards sustainability],” Barlett added.

Emory’s vision plan builds upon the sustainability components of its 2005-2015 Strategic Plan and focuses on energy and water consumption reduction as primary methods for achieving sustainability, Howett noted.

“We allowed ourselves to think big and be bold when coming up with our new vision because we know there’s transformative power in saying as a collective group, ‘We want this to be the university that we are a part of. We want this to be our campus community,’” Howett said.

As one such dream, Howett envisions an “Emory Beltline.” Modelled after the Atlanta Beltline, a linking of neighborhoods and shops through miles of downtown Atlanta for pedestrians and bikers to commute, an Emory Beltline would allow students and faculty to choose alternative methods of travel instead of commuting with motorized vehicles. Howett anticipates challenges in finding space for such a beltline to be built, but she remarks that it is possible. After all, 10 years ago, she never would have imagined that a weekly farmer’s market or biofuel-running Cliff shuttles would be available – two sustainability efforts that she now could not imagine Emory without, she said.

In addition to working towards building these new facilities, the vision’s goals will also build upon Emory’s previous achievements in these areas.

Between 2005 and last year, Emory reduced its energy consumption from nearly 230,000 British thermal units (BTU) per square foot to just over 180,000 BTU per square foot – a decrease by over 16 percent, Howett said. Emory is now working on its goal to self-generate 10 percent of its energy, she added.

Howett added that in the past few years, Emory has added over 3 million gross square feet of LEED-certified buildings to campus to encourage resource-efficiency and reduced utility costs. Over 30 buildings on its campus meet the LEED qualifications. The vision plan also set the goal for potable water use to be reduced by 50 percent in the next 10 years and for energy consumption reduction to reach 50 percent by 2050, she said.

The WaterHub was built in 2015. Now, twice a week, student leaders guide tour groups through the WaterHub, introducing individuals to the diverse ecosystem that uses biomimicry to naturally cleanse water. The tours allow students and other community members to learn more about sustainability and share insight. 

Berea College has an eco-machine, a system using organisms and ecosystems in order to treat wastewater and reuse it for other purposes. Emory University has a similar facility, called the WaterHub in order to reduce its environmental impact in the water sector. / IMCBerea College / 070308_Ecomachine_DB / Creative Commons Flickr Images

Berea College has an eco-machine, a system using organisms and ecosystems in order to treat wastewater and reuse it for other purposes. Emory University has a similar facility, called the WaterHub in order to reduce its environmental impact in the water sector. / IMCBerea College / 070308_Ecomachine_DB / Creative Commons Flickr Images

Barlett added that the new Campus Life Center (CLC) at Emory will be a net-zero building, meaning the energy used in the building will be fueled entirely by renewable energy created on site.

However, Emory has also met challenges in these areas. According to Emory’s Climate Action Plan of 2011, Emory relies on Georgia Power to generate energy from coal-fired power plants. These powerplants make up 55 percent of the University’s carbon footprint, and Emory is only able to decrease its environmental impact in the energy sector through the efforts Georgia Power makes in this area, the plan said.

Similarly, the plan notes that Emory experienced a 51.3 percent increase in University-funded travel by air and car as well as an increase in single-occupancy commuting miles driven.

“That’s the thing about sustainability – there’s no one magic silver bullet that’s going to address everything we need,” Howett said, addressing the variety of points mentioned in the vision plan and the need for Emory to overcome these challenges in all areas.

The shift by universities towards sustainability comes in light of controversies surrounding climate change.

“Right now, with climate change becoming more visible, that’s why we are having more momentum [for sustainability],” Saikawa said. “Younger generations feel that it’s very important that [they] don’t lose [their voices], and the university is a place where… we are curious to know the truth and what we can do about it to protect the environment.”

Saikawa added that she believes shifts such as these come in phases due to global topics. Like climate change, she said, there have been other major shifts in mindsets towards thinking about environmental sustainability. She noted that her colleagues have told her about how the impact of warfare on the environment, such as the effect of Agent Orange herbicides on farmlands, during the Vietnam War caused a shift in their thinking, and she noted that students have an important role in these movements.

The 1993, Kyoto Declaration also demonstrated a commitment to teach students about their roles in sustainability by encouraging higher education institutions to educate students in sustainability through curriculum, according to the International Journal of Higher Education Research. The Kyoto Declaration was adopted by 90 universities worldwide.

Following this policy’s creation, universities took measures to decrease their environmental impacts.

In 2007, College of the Atlantic (COA) became the first carbon-neutral college, as a pioneer for universities seeking sustainability on campus, according to the Mount Desert Islander. COA has also installed solar photovoltaic arrays in its efforts to become a fossil fuel-free campus by the 2050.

Additionally, included in the Sierra Club’s ranking of the greenest universities in the U.S. in 2015  is the University of California at Santa Cruz for its reduced use of energy emissions through fossil fuels. The students at this university regularly use the 14 miles of bike paths on campus with hundreds of students owning their own bike instead of cars.

Universities can track and measure their advancement towards sustainability through the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS) program of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), Howett said. The program requires a questionnaire with over 100 data points, she noted, adding that Emory also releases a survey to students to examine how literate they are in sustainability issues.

According to Saikawa, universities should incorporate student input into their sustainability plans because they will be the leaders for change as they grow older.

“When [students] graduate, if the awareness and mindset is there, they can go on to different communities to spread the word,” Saikawa said.

Emory made efforts to incorporate student input from both graduate and undergraduate students when developing the plan, according to Saikawa. Howett added that the Sustainability Vision committee considered over 200 comments from community members to create the plan.

Howett said that students in particular have the ability to really make change happen, adding that universities should seek to introduce them to possible avenues for action.

“I always say to students, ‘You know, you’re far more powerful as a student than you ever realize,’” Howett said. “Students can lead and create change and take an initiative and run with it.” 

 

Hahn Woods is an area of Lullwater Park that preserves nature within the city and very populated university. / Hahn Woods/Lullwater Park / G. DAWSON / Creative Commons Flickr Images

Hahn Woods is an area of Lullwater Park that preserves nature within the city and very populated university. / Hahn Woods/Lullwater Park / G. DAWSON / Creative Commons Flickr Images

 

Read my bibliography for this feature assignment by clicking here.