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On sustainability forefront, CU is showing how it can be done, say panelists

With its wide expertise, "Cornell is in a unique position to demonstrate that there are ways forward" when it comes to sustainability, said Frank DiSalvo, director of Cornell's David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. DiSalvo moderated a panel discussion on sustainability, titled "Sustaining the World," Oct. 21 in the Statler Amphitheater, one of many events during Cornell's Trustee Council Annual Meeting weekend.

"The rest of the world needs demonstrations that this can be done," DiSalvo added.

One of the ways that Cornell has demonstrated its leadership role in sustainability has been through its Climate Action Plan, which went into effect in 2009 and outlines a path to carbon neutrality by 2050, he said. Since the plan went into the effect, the university has cut its carbon emissions by up to 25 percent, largely due to a new combined heat and power plant that opened in 2010 and an end to coal use on campus earlier this year.

When so many projects were stalled due to the economic downturn over the last few years, the new heat and power plant "was the one project that the administration decided not to put on hold," said panelist Kyu Whang, vice president for facilities services. The university decided to spend up to $46 million on energy conservation projects over five years, investments that are now delivering an annual savings of $10 million, Whang said. "When times are tough, spend your money wisely, and we have done that," he added.

Panelist Michael Hoffmann, associate dean in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station, pointed out how the experiment station has "adopted a culture of sustainability" where "we have empowered our staff to come up with ideas" for sustainability, as they are the ones who are closest to the daily operations. The station now composts some 6,000 tons of dining waste; conducted a feasibility study for converting 35,000 tons of campus biomass to heat and power; has reduced mowing; retrofitted greenhouses; and is saving energy by turning off the power in winter when some buildings go unused.

In response to a question about how people can counter climate skeptics who say there is no man-made global warming, DiSalvo recounted Randy Olson, a scientist-turned-filmmaker who visited campus in September. Olson had said that the problem with scientists is they are stuck in the head, but the rest of the world operates more from the neck down. "If we don't figure out how to connect with people's hearts and their gut, we are going to lose this conversation," DiSalvo said.

Panelist Lucia Von Reusner '12, co-president of the campus organization Kyoto Now! added that Americans are more apt to take on environmental issues when communications campaigns are focused on health issues as opposed to climate change.

Other panelists included Wendy Wolford, the Ruth E. Polson Professor of Development Sociology; and Rod Howe, assistant director for community and economic vitality at Cornell Cooperative Extension and executive director of the Community and Rural Development Institute.

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Joe Schwartz