University is working hard to CAP carbon emissions

By Christopher James

If you turned back the clock 10 years at New York University, you would certainly find a recycling program. You would find some offices that went out of their way to buy paper with recycled content. You would find stickers around light switches reminding members of the N.Y.U. community to turn off the lights as they left the room. But you wouldn’t find a campus-wide approach to — or spirit of — sustainability.

In 2010, however, those initial efforts have been replaced by a sustained and sharply focused push to reduce waste, save energy and shrink the university’s carbon footprint. Student dorms compete against each other to save the most electricity. Sustainability projects proposed by students, faculty and administrators annually receive university grants. And the university has made a major capital investment in a new, state-of-the-art cogeneration facility that saves energy, lowers emissions and produces electricity and heat for more of N.Y.U.’s buildings.

The latest important step came last week with the release of N.Y.U.’s Climate Action Plan (CAP). A comprehensive approach, CAP details the university’s current greenhouse gas inventory, lays out specific and effective projects to mitigate these emissions, using current fiscally sound technologies, while maintaining N.Y.U.’s vital teaching, learning and research missions.

“Across the university — from academics to financial and space planning to sustainability — we are striving to plan for the long term,” said Michael Alfano, N.Y.U.’s executive vice president. “This Climate Action Plan fits within that template, relying on a rigorous analysis to point the way toward a 30-year goal of attaining carbon neutrality.” 

The university has committed itself to sustainability in concrete ways. On the local level, N.Y.U. signed on to Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC Climate Challenge, which calls for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2017. On the national level, N.Y.U. signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), which calls for colleges and universities to implement comprehensive plans in pursuit of climate neutrality. N.Y.U. has pledged to achieve climate neutrality by 2040.

N.Y.U.’s CAP, then, is a roadmap to meeting these commitments. It details a set of very concrete, practical and ambitious strategies to draw down greenhouse gas emissions over the immediate coming decade to meet the Mayor’s PlaNYC Climate Challenge, and then much more comprehensively to meet the ACUPCC’s carbon-neutrality commitment to get to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

And the university has taken important strides. For example, N.Y.U. has significantly reduced its greenhouse gas emissions, cutting them by 20 percent in just the past three years. N.Y.U. total emissions have dropped from a fiscal-year peak of 171,000 MTCE (Metric Tons of Carbon Equivalent) in FY 2006 to 136,000 MTCE in FY 2009. That emission reduction is equivalent to the total annual emissions from the electricity used by more than 21,000 average New York City homes.

And N.Y.U. has achieved reductions in electrical usage, reducing consumption by 15 percent in the last three years, a significant achievement.

Cecil Scheib, the university’s director of Energy and Sustainability, said, “Through energy saving initiatives, N.Y.U.’s decrease in global-warming pollution is a measurable component of New York City’s total emissions, and represents a major step toward confronting the challenge of global warming.”

N.Y.U.’s CAP is a tool for multiple uses and audiences. While certainly a guide for the university in implementing many of the changes for bringing down N.Y.U.’s greenhouse gas emissions, it also can serve as a teaching tool for the university community and for the broader public beyond our borders.

N.Y.U., as an institution that is in and of the city, has a unique opportunity to pilot best practices and create a CAP that is useful here, or useful to other universities, and to learn some valuable lessons and gain some important perspectives. These can have a deep bearing on urban sustainability across the U.S. and around the world.

N.Y.U.’s CAP is structured around four major emissions reduction strategies:

1. Reduce Energy Intensity — 50 percent of N.Y.U.’s climate neutrality goal: N.Y.U. will reduce the amount of energy used in buildings through conservation, “green” construction and renovation, retrofits and upgrades and operational innovations to run buildings more effectively. Initial efforts have already resulted in 20 percent emissions cuts.

2. Generate and Use Cleaner Energy — 30 percent of N.Y.U.’s climate neutrality goal: N.Y.U. will generate cleaner energy on site with a new cogeneration power plant, which will mitigate 23 percent of N.Y.U.’s baseline FY 2006 emissions. N.Y.U. will also minimize the use of fuel oil to heat buildings, replacing it with cleaner, more efficient energy sources.

3. Generate Renewable Energy — 10 percent of N.Y.U.’s climate neutrality goal: N.Y.U. is exploring options to develop on-site distributed, renewable-energy generation projects on its buildings, including wind and solar technologies.

4. Reduce / Offset Remaining Emissions — 10 percent of N.Y.U.’s climate neutrality goal: Given the constraints of a dense urban environment, it is likely that N.Y.U. will purchase high-quality, credible offsets to accomplish long-term climate goals.

Jeremy Friedman, N.Y.U.’s manager of Sustainability Initiatives, said, “N.Y.U.’s CAP fuses the short-term, climate-change mitigation strategies of the Mayoral Challenge commitment with the broader goals of the ACUPCC; each complements the other and anchors N.Y.U.’s overarching commitment to sustainability.”

In addition to these efforts to reduce climate change, N.Y.U. is committed to fostering a university-wide culture of sustainability through expanded environment-related course work at both N.Y.U. and the affiliated Polytechnic Institute of N.Y.U., as well as through deepened engagement efforts that directly involve the university community.

“As part of the team working full time on sustainability at N.Y.U.,” added Friedman, “it is a real source of pride to discover how deep the support for these initiatives runs throughout the entire university community. It will take everyone’s participation to meet the global challenge posed by the climate crisis. The size and scope of this problem is immense, but I believe it is equaled only by our collective capacity to confront it together.”


James is a member of N.Y.U.’s media relations department and N.Y.U.’s Sustainability Task Force