2015 Sustainability Report shows slow-moving progress

Sunday, April 10, 2016 - 4:38pm

The University of Michigan's 2015 Sustainability Progress Report, released last week, identified several key areas that require improvement for the University to meet its sustainability goals.

One large category was the amount of waste sent to landfills, a sign of effective food waste composting. The University’s stated goal for 2025 is to reduce it by 40 percent. According to the report, by the end of 2015, it had been reduced 1.7 percent.

Energy conservation and greenhouse gas emissions saw similar trends. For these areas, the report drew on numbers from Energy Management — a division within Plant Operations at the University — which monitors the energy use of buildings on campus, tracking their heating and air conditioning systems and implementing energy conservation measures in academic buildings.

For the past six years, the program has recorded an 8-percent annual reduction in energy consumption in the buildings it was responsible for. However, the report said it remains unclear whether or not this reduction will continue at the same rate once the University of Michigan Health System, University Housing and athletics are incorporated into the program. As well, according to the report, the University is currently progressing negatively toward its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2025, instead increasing emissions by 3 percent as of this year.

A third major category, sustainability behavior and engagement efforts, showed slightly more positive results. Citing a study by the Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program, which measures sustainability awareness, knowledge and behavior on campus to inform future sustainability efforts, the report said sustainability knowledge had increased in the past year, but eco-friendly engagement had decreased.

The report emphasized the success of several engagement programs, including the Planet Blue Ambassador Program, which facilitates sustainability awareness by providing a platform for “ambassadors” to make pledges relating to their personal sustainability and monitor their environmental impact. According to the report, the program has created more than 2,400 ambassadors — meaning they’ve completed five training modules related to “energy, food, waste, water and community — who have completed more than 20,000 “environmental actions” that help move toward the University’s goals.

Despite the low numbers in energy conservation and waste reduction, Andrew Horning, deputy director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University, noted that the University was now devoting more resources to sustainability after a 2015 announcement of a $100 million dollar investment.

The investment, aimed at creating a greener campus, is spread out over a number of different initiatives and will be implemented incrementally in the coming years. The primary focuses of the funds, recommended by committees of faculty, staff and students, are expansion of the University's food waste composting program; extension of the University's energy conservation program to the University of Michigan Health System, the athletic program and University Housing; and enhancement of sustainability behavior change and engagement programs. Most of the programs recommended were not fully or at all implemented in 2015, the year measured by the report.

"These programs and many others are being enhanced through a new commitment of dedicated resources that will allow for more effective outreach to and engagement with the campus community,” Horning said.

Also highlighted in the Sustainability Progress Report was the University's recent “gold” rating under the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System.

STARS, designed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, was envisioned as a way to increase transparency in measuring progress in sustainability, and relies on self-reported data from participating universities. Gold is an improvement from the University's previous rating of silver, which was given in 2012. Platinum is the only higher ranking possible under STARS after gold, and is currently held only by Colorado State University.

Nonetheless, for some students, the University’s sustainability initiatives draw a mixed response.

Public Policy junior Ellen Loubert, a member of the steering committee for the Divest and Invest Campaign, said the issue isn’t that campus isn’t invested in sustainability, but rather that the University isn't listening. Divest and Invest advocates for the University to divest its endowment investments from coal.

"Some of the support really shows that there is in fact campus consensus on the underlying issue in the case of divestment, which is climate change," she said. "So, I think the first step in, you know, actually realizing divestment would be for the regents of the University to form an ad hoc committee that could look into that.”

Loubert added that she hasn't seen any initiative on the part of the University to address these complaints.

"We could understand if the University had formed this committee, but what we're seeing right now is a lack of motivation to even start the process of looking into that," she said. "So you see how this report is doing a lot of good things, but at the same time, is sort of hypocritical."