In its most high-profile move yet toward sustainability goals, Cornell has joined close to 80 other colleges and universities in pledging bold efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases associated with global warming, chief among them carbon dioxide (CO2).
After reviewing a committee's recommendations on how to proceed, President David Skorton said on Feb. 22 that he signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. "By this act, we commit to developing a plan for the university to achieve climate neutrality, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, starting on our main campus in Ithaca, N.Y. Today's signature will allow the university to serve in a leadership position as a member of the Commitment's Leadership Circle," he said. Read Skorton's full statement.
The climate-neutral, or carbon-neutral, commitment holds signatories to developing a comprehensive plan for eliminating emissions of greenhouse gases -- mainly CO2 -- first by quantifying harmful emissions, and then taking a layered approach to reducing them. The climate commitment document also outlines aggressive strategies for such reductions, from adopting energy-efficient appliances to encouraging public transportation.
"The complexity of the challenge we assume today, which has been of such widespread concern throughout our community, will require all of our energies and wisdom," Skorton said. "While today's announcement is about the quality of the stewardship of our university, we should not lose sight that Cornell's education and research already contribute to society's capacity to protect the environment. And, by pursuing in tandem these three facets of our work on sustainability, we will add fresh momentum and foster the kind of innovations that occur when looking beyond the traditional disciplinary boundaries."
Student members of KyotoNOW! had been lobbying Skorton to sign the multi-university agreement. In early February, the University of Pennsylvania became the first, and until now the only, Ivy League university to sign. On Feb. 12 Skorton told KyotoNOW! that he was inclined to sign the agreement but would wait until he had heard from the committee.
In his latest statement, Skorton declared, "Because there are no real cost-effective solutions to achieve climate neutrality today, a strong emphasis on education and research, coupled with the willingness to make the tough decisions now, will produce meaningful answers for tomorrow."
KyotoNOW! member Emily Rochon, an environmental toxicology graduate student, acknowledged that going for climate neutrality will no doubt come with a price tag. But by making the necessary investments, she said the impacts will be "much more meaningful."
"Other schools will be going through similar planning processes," Rochon said. "If different schools start moving in that direction ... more carbon reduction technologies can become available."
Making a public commitment to greenhouse gas reduction is the first step in weaving a formal plan together, explained Carolyn Ainslie, vice president for planning and budget, who co-chaired the advisory committee with Stephen Golding, executive vice president for finance and administration. The committee also included two members of the student group KyotoNOW!, faculty members, Sustainability Coordinator Dean Koyanagi and representatives from Cornell's Department of Utilities and Energy Management.
"It will help us create an umbrella governance to move it forward, and it will also keep us aware of what our individual academic programs and business operations are doing in this important area, to make sure we're headed in a common direction," Ainslie said.
Golding stressed that Cornell must next work to identify exactly what it means to be climate-neutral, and how to measure it.
"We know it's going to take a long time, and we know it has to be balanced with what we can achieve economically while addressing other competing needs of the institution," Golding said. "This is not a problem that's going to be solved overnight, but if we work on it we can make progress."