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Going Green: DU plans for carbon neutrality by 2050

Carbon Neutrality ChartHumans first learned how to release carbon into the atmosphere with smoky campfires at the dawn of time. Since then, if there’s one thing we’ve gotten truly great at, it’s producing carbon, more and more of it, stuffing our atmosphere with greenhouse gases and turning our planet into a hothouse on the verge of catastrophic climate change.

Now, the University of Denver is announcing what may prove its most ambitious initiative: a University-wide commitment to sustainability. DU is poised to produce a new generation of leaders dedicated to planetary sustainability and a campus that will be entirely carbon neutral by 2050.

Fulfilling the University’s pledge to the American College and University Climate Commitment program, the DU Sustainability Council—comprised of students, faculty and staff—spent 15 months hammering out the University of Denver Sustainability Plan and Report. In June, the 93-page blueprint was delivered to senior administrators. With backing from the Board of Trustees, it was approved by Chancellor Robert Coombe.

“We have only just begun with the sustainability initiative at DU,” says Provost Gregg Kvistad, who serves on the Sustainability Council, lending the administration’s support to an array of environmental initiatives. “An enormous amount of hard work is ahead of us, but we have the people, the commitment, the ingenuity and the institutional will to move it forward.”


A culture of sustainability

Under the plan, DU will achieve climate neutrality by 2050, drastically reducing its share of the greenhouse gases blamed for polluting the atmosphere and impacting the world’s climate.

Along the way, the council has committed to adopting new technologies as they are developed, meeting interim mileposts and achieving reductions at every opportunity. Members of the University community will be asked to change the way they do things: the way they teach and learn, the way they get to work, where they get their food, how they design learning spaces and how they grow flowers.

Nothing is untouchable. Even the climate inside University buildings is fair game, as DU began raising thermostats in offices and classrooms this summer to cut energy consumption.

“The hard work starts now,” says Lyndsay Agans, clinical assistant professor at the Morgridge College of Education and lead author of the plan. “We have the resources to do this, to be a national leader. This truly fits the mission of our university. We can do this. But it will take work.”

The plan is a roadmap, spelling out details of a multifaceted approach to sustainability that goes beyond the nuts and bolts of fossil fuels and renewable energy. It is all-encompassing, pressing for change in the way people interact on campus, both with their environment and with one another. It calls for a lifestyle that embraces understanding and conservation across the DU campus.

Fred Cheever, a Sturm College of Law professor who chaired the council from its inception in February 2008 until the sustainability plan was delivered to Coombe in June, says incorporating sustainable goals into every part of campus life is the ultimate aim, making sustainability a concern before undertaking any action, even something as simple as turning on a light switch or turning up the thermostat on a chilly day.

“The cheapest kilowatt-hour is the one you don’t use,” he says.

Beyond energy consumption and conservation, though, the plan calls for incorporating sustainability into DU’s curriculum, teaching students the importance of conservation and sustainable development.

“Sustainability has made it into the public consciousness, and the University of Denver, in particular, has done a great job of stepping out and understanding the burden, the responsibility, that higher-education institutions bear in relation to sustainability,” Agans says.

“Universities and colleges are obligated, given their role as social institutions, to educate students and change the citizenry with programs built around sustainability,” she adds. “It’s about changing the dominant paradigm, and universities play a key role in that. They’re the essential location for changing that.”

The plan calls for the incorporation of sustainability issues into student orientation, the introduction of locally grown foods into dining halls, the use of organic fertilizers and pesticides on campus landscapes, and care to ensure that DU’s institutional investments continue to reflect the University’s commitment to global social responsibility.

And the plan is about people, too, calling for continued efforts to foster diversity and equity through everything from diversity initiatives to domestic-partner benefits.

DU already has taken concrete steps. The Sustainability Council didn’t just discuss issues; members came to monthly meetings prepared to act.

Since September 2008, the University has rolled out a massively revamped recycling program, announced a bike-sharing partnership with the city of Denver, installed a vehicle fueling station for cleaner-burning compressed natural gas, retrofitted a skating rink and the lighting system in the Ritchie Center for Sports and Wellness for greater efficiency, and created a pilot parking program that rewards the owners of energy-efficient vehicles with prime parking spots.

On the academic side, DU for the first time this fall offers an undergraduate minor in sustainability that can be tailored to mesh with virtually any major.

Agans, who focused much of her doctoral work on the role of sustainability in education, says adding an undergraduate educational component was a natural start. Across DU’s decentralized campus, many educators already were teaching aspects of sustainability, but it took a concerted effort—one she says many were open to—for the curriculum committee to pull together a minor.

Next, Agans says, there’s room for even more focused efforts, such as graduate programs, research projects, the incubation of new technologies and business models, and cross-campus collaboratives connecting different colleges.

“When you think about higher-education institutions changing society, there are a lot of student efforts, a lot of grassroots efforts, a lot of civic-engagement efforts, but we’ve also got to look at what we do as educators,” Agans says. “There’s an amazing amount of research being done by our own faculty, so it’s a matter of connecting that and saying, ‘Yes, we are engaged in sustainability.’ It’s about preparing students for that new green economy.”

From the start, the faculty and staff members on the council have embraced student participation, welcoming undergraduate and graduate students as peers. And students have led the way on new initiatives.

It was Daniels College of Business master’s candidate Charlie Coggeshall who took his pilot recycling program at Daniels and worked with facilities managers and administrators to turn it into the campus-wide “Get Caught Green-Handed” single-stream recycling program. It’s proven so popular in just one academic year that offices and classrooms are turning in more recyclables than trash.

And it was undergraduate students Mary Jean O’Malley and Zoee Turrill who latched on to a budding Denver bike-sharing proposal to develop a city/University partnership and launch a campus pilot program that will meld with the city program in 2010. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper came to campus to help celebrate the launch, which drew national attention.

Hickenlooper showed great enthusiasm at DU’s involvement and recognized O’Malley and Turrill with a city proclamation.

“You don’t have great cities without great universities,” the mayor said. “DU was the first institution that stepped up right away and said, ‘How can we be a part of this? It’s a perfect match with our core values and principles.'”

Chancellor Coombe has backed the sustainability effort from the start, dating back to 2007, when he signed the Climate Commitment. From there, he has championed the nexus where DU’s many missions come together, encouraging the University community to harness the creative energy in laboratories and classrooms across campus, serve the public good and deliver quality educational programs.

“This is going to be a great learning experience for our students, one that couples student engagement in real issues with deep classroom learning about how to reasonably interpret those issues,” Coombe says. “This is one of those areas where we can serve both our students and the public good by graduating capable, well-informed men and women whose lives can influence the future, and by using our intellectual assets to develop new ideas that can have a direct impact.”


Driving innovation, collaboration and action

Looking ahead, Agans sees campus engagement as a key component to maintaining the momentum. The road ahead is long, and the work will take many hands and hearts to carry forward, she says. Setting a goal that’s 41 years in the future may seem like the easy way out, but Agans says it’s actually harder, because it demands patience and persistence, commitment to the larger goal while hitting interim targets along the way.

Patience comes in as DU waits for new technologies that make solar, wind and hydrogen power more efficient and economically feasible. And a big, often overlooked, component to sustainability is the fiscal sustainability of DU, she says. A university that spends itself out of existence is carbon neutral. But it also doesn’t do any good.

It might be easier for the University to simply buy its way into carbon neutrality, purchasing carbon credits as needed. And though offsets are indeed a part of the DU plan, Kvistad says credits alone are not the answer.

“Credits are a market device to displace responsibility,” he says. “And that is not consistent with the University’s values.”

So the future will come as it comes, and Agans says the council must continue to drive innovation, collaboration and action.

“This year comes down to the people and the students and giving the people of our community room to do and to follow their passions,” she says. “It’s also about doing what we say we’re going to do.

“When we were writing the report, part of it was deciding what was going into it and being transparent and authentic, not saying [we would do] something that we couldn’t do. A lot of institutions will say they’re going to be carbon neutral. We wouldn’t just say it. We were checking our science and checking our math independently—can we really do this?”

She’s optimistic. Attitudes do change. People do change.

“A few years ago recycling was an odd thing,” she says. “Now we recycle more than we throw away. That’s been a very quick change. We can do this.”


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