Michael Specter’s article on carbon emissions for the New Yorker makes a compelling argument: “How do we alter human behavior significantly enough to limit global warming? Personal choices, no matter how virtuous, cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.” Accordingly, Specter primarily focuses upon potential avenues for corporations and industry. The point I ultimately took away is that while we should (and must) be dedicated to reducing our carbon footprint on an individual level, it is imperative that broad changes must occur on an institutional level (and higher) to truly address the issue.
This led me to consider the question of what changes higher education can make in order to also become more environmentally sustainable. And so I turned to my uncle, Dr. Anthony Martin, a senior lecturer in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University. Martin is an accomplished paleontologist who has been at Emory for eighteen years, and he’s talked with me before about the university’s environmental challenges, especially considering their near-constant state of rebuilding and expanding. I e-mailed him with a couple of questions, and his gracious responses demonstrate that there is a wealth of possibilities for colleges and universities to reduce their carbon footprint.
Nota Bibliothecae: As we learn more about carbon emissions and their environmental effect, it's becoming clear that large-scale changes are necessary to appreciably decrease our collective carbon footprint. I was wondering if you could tell us a little about how Emory has been approaching the problem of carbon emissions at an institutional level.
Anthony Martin: In 2006, Emory University hired a director for an office of sustainability initiatives. This high-level and full-time position, as well as the office of sustainability initiatives, was created to show a serious commitment toward environmentally sustainable practices. The director, Ms. Ciannat Howett, is an environmental lawyer and was previously the director of the Southern Environmental Law Center and is an Emory grad, so she was seen as someone who would have the requisite knowledge and negotiating skills for starting and sustaining (pun intended) these initiatives. For some examples of what this office is doing with current projects, these are listed here.
Among Ms. Howett's long checklist of institutionalizing sustainable practices is looking at the carbon footprint of the campus: how to calculate it, what factors contribute to it, and how it can be reduced. Of course, the most direct way to assess the carbon footprint of a university is to examine its daily, seasonal, and annual energy use. In Georgia, this is especially problematic because most of our electricity comes from coal, and we have the lowest gasoline taxes in the nation, combined with poor state support for public transportation and large suburban communities in the metro-Atlanta area (this means people drive a lot, and oftentimes by themselves). With regards to transportation, Emory has addressed this in some incredibly (for Georgia!) progressive ways:
(1) All employees have free access to MARTA (the public transit here in Atlanta), fully subsidized by Emory;
(2) Emory and other employers in the university area have jointly paid for free shuttle buses that transport people to and from campus;
(3) Some of the shuttle buses are alternatively fueled, either with natural gas or biodiesel. (A cool side story to that: the biodiesel project was started by an Emory undergraduate student in my department, Eric Fyfe. Students can make a difference! Read about it here
(4) A bike program was started in which a local bike store and Emory agreed to discounts on bike purchases and Emory provided helmets for free;
(5) The carpool program provides discounted annual parking for two people in a carpool, and a free reserved space on campus for carpools of three or more. (I belong to one such carpool, and sometimes take the bus or ride my bike, too);
(6) Vanpools were started by Emory several years ago, linking to suburban areas. Vanpool participants only have to chip in for gas, take turns driving, and have a free reserved parking space near the center of campus;
(7) Emory has an agreement with Zipcar (merged recently with Flexcar) to have dedicated cars parked on campus for people who need a car during the day. (And yes, they're all hybrids.)
Other than transportation, buildings are energy hogs, so Emory has also embarked on a “green building” crusade, which has succeeded wildly. We now have the most square footage of LEEDS certified buildings of any university in the U.S. (including some of the dorms!). Energy conservation is now a part of daily life here, and a scholar-in-residence (Dr. Susan Kidd) was hired this year to investigate other sustainable energy strategies that can reduce our carbon footprint (story is here).All in all, we're doing pretty well. And again, let me emphasize that this is happening in Georgia. If we can do this here, it can be exported to places where there is (how shall I say it tactfully?) not so much institutional inertia and resistance to change.
NB: How might other universities (or even businesses/commercial groups) follow Emory’s example?
AM: The easiest way to convince a university or business to adopt this is to pose what I call an “economic fundamentalist” question: “Do you like to save money?” Decreased carbon footprints results from decreased energy use, which saves lots of money (especially in the long run) and eventually is self-sustaining. And if you just need a business model to follow, check out Ray Anderson and Interface, Inc. Here's someone whose company made sustainability a part of the company mission statement, and they're not only achieving that goal, they're making a tidy profit while doing it. It's pretty tough to continue to argue for wasting energy when the last remaining justification (“But it'll cut into out profits!”) is taken away.