While I wasn’t exactly expecting great things from the State of the University address Mary Sue Coleman gave last week to explain University initiatives and plans for the coming year, I was perplexed by Coleman’s vision of campus sustainability. With the creation of a special counsel to advise on sustainability issues, it sounds like the University may simply be paying lip service to the issue more than actually producing real change. That view is furthered by the fact that Coleman also declined to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. I cannot help but feel the University believes the sustainability movement does not require any cooperation.

The ACUPCC itself is an idealistic but fairly reasonable document. Its mission is to get colleges to inventory their carbon footprint and implement a long-term plan to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, it asks signers to make at least two concrete goals such as making new construction projects LEED silver or greater or getting at least 15 percent of energy from renewable sources. Coleman has said that experts have deemed the whole of the document as “unreasonable.” I’d be more likely to buy that argument if I had an idea of what her rubric for “unreasonable” was.

How can the University address the sustainability issue on its own, if not by collaborating with other universities and making specific goals that may be too ambitious to reach for? Some of the answers do lie in simple changes in policy and administration, such as the special counsel and collaborations between University groups that Coleman proposed in her speech. But collaboration is only the first step, and signs that concrete are steps being implemented from the top of the University down better show a true commitment to sustainability goals.

The first thing the University can look at comes to mind when I think of my friends sweating profusely in dorms — regulate the damn heat better. Pumping heat into dorms to make them warmer than most people need is both inefficient and costly. Most students will end up opening windows in the fall to keep temperatures bearable. At the very least, ensuring thermostats are adequately regulating temperatures in buildings or implementing better air conditioning systems could help with this and make accommodations more comfortable for students.

Speaking of dorms, every once in a blue moon, the University offers “sustainable” meals made from locally grown products so they don’t have as high a carbon footprint from transportation costs. Schools such as UNC Chapel Hill have even used local sources for as much as 20 percent of their food in an effort to be sustainable. If the University really wishes to get serious, they should expand this program.

Then there are new construction projects and LEED. While North Quad, currently under construction, has some green features, University officials deliberately chose not to make it a LEED-certified building. And the much-touted Ross School of Business’ silver LEED rating lags behind many other schools’ shiny new gold- and even platinum-rated facilities. The reason we didn’t go for more systems? Adding nifty features like a geothermal heating system would cost extra money in the initial price tag, even though such a system would save money in the long run. It’s a bit disappointing to see us fall short on some causes due to purely financial reasons even if the payoff would be greater in time.

For projects such as installing geothermal heating units instead of conventional systems for buildings, costs can be recovered over time with the energy saved, as I addressed in a column last winter (The heat beneath your feet, 01/19/2009). This is true for a lot of other innovative, green building materials such as high-efficiency windows and insulation that decrease energy required for climate control, which further lowers lowering energy bills for heating. As these building practices have grown more common, studies such as one carried out by the Urban Green Council have shown that LEED buildings, if designed well, cost the same per square foot as conventional buildings but use far less energy.

If the University wants to prove its sustainability, it needs to start working on green design from the foundation up. Cement manufacturing accounts for five to eight percent of global carbon emissions, and new materials such as geopolymers can offer equal or better structural performance with one-tenth the carbon generation of cements. While this material comes at a slight premium, if the University implemented this kind of material for use in new construction, it would send a clear message that we are serious about sustainability.

It’s difficult to weigh all the options that must be considered when implementing new initiatives. To an extent, I can understand skepticism regarding how groups should deal with sustainability. But the University can’t be a leader on sustainability unless its willing to make the leap to toward lofty goals, even if some deem those goals unreasonable at first. In the end, a University counsel, no matter how special, means nothing unless it can both develop tangible plans and implement them.

Ben Caleca can be reached at calecab@umich.edu.

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