Nov. 7, 2013

Skorton: Hard work ahead for campus sustainability

Céline Jennison, Rebecca Macies; Erin Moore and Joan Manheim
Mark Lawrence
From left, Céline Jennison, of the Cornell Permaculture Club; Rebecca Macies; Erin Moore; and Joan Manheim, all winners of the Cornell University Partners in Sustainability Award.

On the day the United Nations announced that global carbon dioxide levels had reached their worst levels in history, Cornellians reported that the strategies to reduce the university’s carbon footprint are working, but the campus has a long road to meet its carbon neutrality goals by 2050.

Cornell President David Skorton spoke to about 130 faculty, students and staff members Nov. 6 at the third annual President’s Sustainable Campus Committee fall summit, which included sessions for small working groups addressing Climate Action Plan priorities and the announcement of the winners of the Cornell University Partners in Sustainability Award.

In discussing campus efforts, Skorton said that easy-to-fix strategies are in place, but hard decisions are ahead.

“As bold as [going coal-free has] been, it’s not obvious what the next three or four or five bold moves are going to be,” he said, urging the sustainability leaders to find ways to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Cornell has reduced carbon emissions by 32 percent since Skorton signed the Presidents Climate Commitment in 2007. The next steps in significantly reducing our carbon footprint won’t be easy, he said.

“So now we’re going to be slugging it out on this problem, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, decision-by-decision. Every single decision is going to be tough,” Skorton said. “Buckle up and hang on tight. We’re really going to have to do the hard stuff now.”

When asked how he would write a legacy headline for Cornell’s carbon reduction, Skorton replied, “Grassroots university community comes together on difficult issues.” He explained that further reducing our carbon emissions will take everyone on campus.

“Going forward, a lot of it requires us coming together as people who don’t line up [ideologically] on certain issues,” he said. “There’s a certain amount you can do from the bully pulpit … you have to invite people to come together.”

Elmira Mangum, vice president for budget and planning, noted that the university’s new budget policies allow for a long-term sustainable campus. She said that many costs to units had been invisible. Now, occupiers of campus space take “ownership,” in that they pay for the utilities, maintenance and care – and they can see the direct costs and act to save money. “Our behaviors impact our carbon footprint,” she said.

At the summit’s lunch, winners of the Cornell University Partners in Sustainability Award were announced:

  • Rebecca Macies ’14, student coordinator for the Campus Sustainability Office, for her effort to keep such campus events as New Student Orientation, Homecoming, Campus Sustainability Day and Spring Fest green;
  • Joan Manheim, marketing manager at the Cornell Store, for her effort to install a toner cartridge refill program, and plastic bag and battery recycling programs. The store now charges a nickel for plastic bags, which generated almost $1,200 between April and August for Cornell’s Green Revolving Fund and cut bag use by half;
  • Erin Moore, energy conservation outreach manager in Facilities Services, for bringing the Cornell community together around the new “Think Big Live Green” campaign, which launched in the College of Engineering earlier this fall; and
  • Cornell Permaculture Club, a student group that produced a demonstration “permaculture garden” next to the Trillium dining facility, where the fruits, vegetables and herbs grown are given directly to chefs for Trillium meals.