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Since the turn of the new millennium the University of Cincinnati has taken campus sustainability to a whole new level. By reducing its carbon footprint, investing in responsive infrastructure and modernization and changing the campus culture, UC is showing students sustainable skills they will carry with them for the rest of their lives
“We have been calculating our carbon footprint since 2007 when the university signed on to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) to work on becoming carbon neutral,” says Daniel Hart, UC’s sustainability coordinator. “By 2009 UC had published its first Climate Action Plan, which gave impetus to a lot of the programs we now have on campus. A lot has changed in the last decade.”
As part of the university’s newly updated Sustainability + Climate Action Plan — a progress and innovation report committed to increased campus sustainability — UC continues to move toward becoming completely carbon neutral within the next fifty years, strongly following the tenets of the innovation and urban impact agendas as part of UC’s Next Live Here strategic direction.
Within the plan, UC’s strategies for improving water conservation and greenhouse emissions also contain well-defined categories related to sustainability education, research, landscape and new LEED-certified infrastructure. All these elements were integral in helping UC earn recognition as one of the nation’s top green schools by the Princeton Review and tied for first place with Stanford University for water conservation.
The university also received a Gold STARS rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).
As a signatory of the ACUPCC in 2007, UC is required to create a plan for moving forward toward carbon neutral status by 2075, says Andy Porter, director of UC space management. The plan — a voluntary agreement between universities and the nonprofit organization Second Nature — not only provides a road map for accomplishing the carbon neutral status but he says UC’s goals include much more.
“Within that carbon neutral plan we included our sustainability and climate action plan in the same document,” says Hart. “This not only spells out our greenhouse gas emission reduction strategies but there are chapters all about culture and how to change behavior on campus.
“We also highlight our built environment with LEED and similar sustainably principled infrastructure, our courses and research programs related to sustainability and our student and campus engagement with the Greater Cincinnati community, so there is a good balance.”
Starting with the first chapter, UC’s plan focuses on the results of looking at the state of the planet, the importance for talking about sustainability at the outset and why climate action matters.
Hart points to the UC president’s participation in and support of the plan as key for showing the amount of institutional support the university has for this effort from the top down.
Since 2009 Porter says UC has not published anything as robust as the new Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, which includes a list of UC’s undergrad and graduate programs that have sustainability features to them.
“We now have an Environmental Literacy Certificate of Achievement program where we organize our sustainability lectures, films, tours, workshops, community outreach and recycling opportunities into a structured co-curricular course," says Hart. That way students who attend have something to show for it.
“This format attracts students who are not already involved in UC’s environmental studies major so it opens the opportunities for all students to participate in the project and earn a certificate they can add to their CV.”
Hart and Porter look forward to working with faculty to increase the number of classes and research grants that have a sustainability focus.
In each chapter, the plan defines both UC’s goals and accomplishments since the last plan was published 10 years ago, including projects happening with UC’s landscape and the efficient ways campus now handles food waste and recycling.
One chapter describes UC’s efficient water conservation efforts on campus, as well as research achievements off campus such as UC’s Great Miami project.
“UC leases land from Miami Whitewater Forest for the C.V. Theis Groundwater Observatory, one of three of its kind east of the Mississippi,” says Hart. “There we have a 25-foot deep monitoring device in the ground that measures groundwater flow, rates of contamination and different qualities of the aquifer, all through UC’s biology department. This program receives a lot of positive feedback for sharing their data with similar projects around the world.”
Incorporated into UC’s resilience planning is an action plan for anticipating the effects of climate change. As the changing climate produces more sporadic precipitation events and increased heat waves with poor air quality, the plan maps out UC’s strengths and vulnerabilities and preparations for dealing with those risks.
“Since the 2009 report, UC has done away with burning coal on main campus, which is a significant cultural milestone,” says Porter.
“We had students heading up ‘Beyond Coal’ campaigns and related community outreach supporting our move away from coal. This is just one example of how we have gotten much greener since that last report."
UC’s updated Sustainability and Climate Action Plan is a quick reference for prospective students and the UC community illustrating the many accomplishments, changes and goals the university has for maintaining a successful trajectory toward sustainable and environmental literacy, Hart says.
“As we enhance our academic curriculum, campus infrastructure and community outreach, UC’s faculty, staff and students will leave a much more meaningful legacy on the world,” he adds.
Featured image at top: University of Cincinnti's McMicken Hall and McMicken Commons. photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services