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One year out, Climate Action Plan brings innovations

A year after the release of Cornell's comprehensive Climate Action Plan (CAP), the campus has become significantly greener; and a host of projects planned and already under way puts the university on a path to meet or surpass sustainability goals in the coming years.

The changes include the launch of the Cornell Combined Heat and Power Plant (CCHPP) in December 2009, approval of $5.6 million in additional cost-effective conservation projects, and increasingly energy-efficient and LEED-certified buildings across campus. Coming up, a major behavior-focused outreach initiative is slated to begin in the next few weeks in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Sustainability issues are also being integrated into more than 200 courses and into new student orientation. And faculty members are taking advantage of new academic venture funding and other resources that support interdisciplinary research on climate neutrality and related topics.

Released Sept. 15, 2009, the CAP presents 19 key actions in five areas: green development, energy conservation, renewable energy, transportation and carbon offsetting. The plan was developed by faculty, staff and students as a road map for future university decisions, and to serve as a model for climate neutrality and economic development.

The plan also fulfills the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, signed by President David Skorton in 2007, which pledges to make the university climate neutral by 2050.

"In the last year, the university's planned course of action has become very tangible," said Dan Roth, sustainability coordinator in the newly reorganized Sustainability Office. "We have a very clear goal: We're going to get to zero [net carbon emissions] by 2050, and we've outlined the specific actions we can take. People can wrap their brains around it; it's concrete."

Among the longer-term projects: Natural resources researcher David Weinstein is leading a project that uses computing technology to help forest managers increase carbon sequestration in forests while maintaining biodiversity and adapting to the effects of climate change.

Jeff Tester, the Croll Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems and associate director for energy in the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, is working with the Facilities Services Department of Energy and Sustainability and others on a project to study the potential to harness deep geothermal energy for use on campus and elsewhere.

And many more faculty and extension experts are involved through the Cornell University Renewable Bioenergy Initiative, an effort led by the Agricultural Experiment Station aimed at developing and using new technologies to convert biomass to fuel.

The launch of the CCHPP is a giant step toward the goal of climate neutrality, reducing campus non-transportation carbon emissions by 33 percent; and the administration has committed to eliminating on-site combustion of coal by July 2011.

The university has added four new regular staff positions to cost-effectively update and maintain building energy systems, and all new buildings are being constructed to meet and often exceed LEED standards for energy efficiency. Student, faculty and staff-led initiatives have formed across campus, from Lights Off Cornell to Big Red Bikes.

To carry the plan forward, Skorton created the President's Sustainable Campus Committee (PSCC) in April. The PSCC is charged with implementing and overseeing initiatives related to sustainability, reaching beyond its initial climate-focused role, said Kyu-Jung Whang, vice president for facilities services and committee co-chair.

"Sustainability is not just about reducing our energy footprint. It's lots of other things: protecting water resources, local foods, changing people's behavior," Whang said.

Maintaining and building on the first year's progress will be the next task, said Timothy Fahey, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Natural Resources and PSCC co-chair.

"It's a challenge, and it's slow," he said. The PSCC is working to keep the issue from fading into the background. "It's a long-term project," he added, "[but] we've created a structure to try to keep the momentum going."

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John Carberry