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Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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Plan sets aggressive goals for Princeton sustainability efforts

Princeton University has committed to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 as part of a comprehensive Sustainability Plan that sets ambitious goals in the areas of greenhouse gas emissions reduction, resource conservation, and research, education and civic engagement.

Princeton proposes to reach its emissions goal through activities on campus rather than through off-campus mitigation projects. These projects include the purchase of emissions "offsets" -- investment in emissions-reduction activities such as planting trees in this country or abroad -- a feature frequently included in other sustainability plans.

"Princeton is truly committed to reducing its impact on the environment, and we believe this commitment begins at home with aggressive efforts to reduce the carbon dioxide that we emit," said Mark Burstein, executive vice president. "Making the commitment in this way will make reaching the target a lot harder to do, especially since Princeton is planning to add almost 2 million square feet of building space over the next 10 years. But this approach will provide many opportunities for Princeton to be a learning laboratory on this issue and to aggressively use new technologies and ideas with the campus as a testing ground."

The comprehensiveness of the plan and its integration with the teaching, research and civic engagement agenda of the University is another distinction of Princeton's approach, according to Burstein. He presented the plan, which has been several years in development, to University trustees at their January meeting. The plan was a response to a widely held view among trustees and on campus that Princeton should play a leadership role not only in programs of teaching and research related to the environment, where it is an acknowledged world leader, but also in the practices it follows on campus.

"Given a growing human population and the desire of people everywhere to live more prosperous lives, sustainability is surely the most important and difficult challenge facing humanity. For a great university like Princeton, with its extraordinary intellectual and financial resources, it is simply not enough to treat sustainability as an academic subject," said David Wilcove, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs, who has been involved in formulating the plan as a member of the Princeton Sustainability Committee. "We must also be a model of how to achieve it on our own campus, in our own community and in our own lives. I think the new Sustainability Plan is strong evidence of our intent to do just that."

Emissions reduction

In 2002, President Shirley M. Tilghman established the Princeton Environmental Oversight Committee (now the Princeton Sustainability Committee), consisting of students, faculty and staff, to identify means to improve the University's environmental footprint. The committee realized that while individual environmental projects undertaken proved successful, exemplary campus stewardship and preparing Princeton's students to become engaged environmental citizens required a comprehensive plan.

In 2006, Shana Weber joined the staff as the University's first sustainability manager. She began working with the committee to establish 10 working groups of students, faculty and staff that assessed existing stewardship initiatives and potential opportunities across the institution. The three priority areas identified in the Sustainability Plan -- greenhouse gas emissions reduction, resource conservation, and research, education and civic engagement -- emerged from that assessment.

Burstein noted that the time is particularly ripe for the adoption of such a plan at Princeton.

"Although we have many initiatives on campus that support sustainability as an institution, we felt that a comprehensive plan would increase the impact of our efforts and allow us to track our progress," he said.

In addition, with the University about to add as much as 2 million square feet of new space over the next 10 years, it was critical to integrate sustainability goals into the University's capital plan.

"Many of the ways we can decrease our environmental footprint as an institution occur through construction," he said. "So having a plan with measurable goals drives the work of the capital plan in a sustainable direction."

That capital plan, combined with the fact that Princeton has added 1.5 million square feet of new space to the campus since 1990, makes the greenhouse gas goal particularly ambitious. Achieving this goal will prevent 75,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere in 2020 and in each subsequent year -- yielding the highest direct environmental impact of any objective in the plan.

The goal is in alignment with the state of New Jersey's energy master plan.

"As one of the nation's leading institutions of higher education, Princeton University's far-sighted decision to mitigate its impact on global climate change and create a sustainable environment is laudable," said New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, an ex officio trustee of the University. "The efforts spearheaded by Princeton's administration and Board of Trustees to address campus [energy] consumption habits comprehensively will serve as a blueprint for colleges, communities, organizations and businesses around the state and the country.

"Princeton's sustainability initiative is more than just symbolic: As the state of New Jersey embarks upon the critical project of creating a cleaner environment for generations to come, Princeton University will be an important partner in helping the state reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and reach our aggressive goals," Corzine said.

Most of the strategies behind Princeton's goal focus on the University's central plant and the buildings it serves, since they account for 85 percent of the University's emissions. The strategies include applying alternative technologies and alternative fuel options at the central power facility and expanding energy conservation through retrofits of existing buildings.

New construction and renovations will be required to have at least a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver equivalency, a standard established by the U.S. Green Building Council. Keeping with Princeton's sustainable building design guidelines, which were set up in 2006, they also will have an overall energy performance goal that is 50 percent better than current code requirements.

The facilities department now will apply a voluntary emissions "tax" as part of the cost-benefit analysis when deciding whether to undertake particular conservation projects. The effect of this is to place a monetary value on the environmental benefit to be realized by taking on the project, and to increase the number of energy-efficient designs and technologies that will be approved. (Tax rates are expected to be based on average market values of the environmental impact of these emissions. Presently those market values range between $30 and $40 per metric ton of projected carbon dioxide emissions.)

After operation of the physical plant, the second largest source of campus emissions is transportation. Goals in this area of the Sustainability Plan are decreasing by 10 percent the number of cars commuting to campus by 2020 and reducing emissions related to the campus fleet.

Strategies that will be used to achieve this goal include providing financial support for commuter use of public transportation; enhancing the campus shuttle system and ride share programs and encouraging their use through incentives; creating better walking and biking paths; developing a telecommuting policy; and replacing retired campus fleet vehicles with zero- or low-emission vehicles.

"As a policy student focused on climate change, I'm excited that Princeton is making such great progress," said Dennis Markatos-Soriano, a graduate student in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and co-chair of Students United for a Responsible Global Environment (SURGE). "Princeton's stellar climate scholars and campus facilities staff can turn the institution's resource commitment into technical and policy solutions for a sustainable future. I'm excited to hear about continued momentum in the years ahead and will support further emissions reduction once I'm an alumnus in a few short months. SURGE aims to help the University achieve and surpass these goals in the years ahead."

Resource conservation

Princeton already is a leader in the area of resource conservation with initiatives such as the early adoption of paper made from 100 percent post-consumer waste for use in offices and an aggressive sustainable food purchasing policy.

New goals under the Sustainability Plan include specific objectives for reduced water usage; increased recycling rates; 100 percent conversion to green cleaning products; decreased use of disposable paper products; and increased purchasing of green goods and services as well as sustainably produced food items.

Strategies for achieving these goals range from putting more recycling receptacles in offices and classrooms to identifying more local suppliers of sustainable food and installing low-flow bathroom fixtures to constructing "green roofs" on buildings.

By adopting the Sustainability Plan, Princeton is working to ensure that the campus will develop and grow in alignment with the plan's environmental goals and strategies. For example, the University's new 10-year Campus Plan proposes a reinvigorated commitment to environmental stewardship and incorporates the Sustainability Plan's landscape and stormwater strategies to restore, enhance and expand the natural areas of campus; and sustainable building technologies to reduce energy demand and conserve water.

Research, education and civic engagement

The Princeton Sustainability Plan recognizes that while the University is committed to aggressively pursuing improvements in the sustainability of campus operations, Princeton's investments in research and education are arguably the most effective way to use its resources to solve the problem of global climate change. One of the highest priorities for Aspire, the University's $1.75 billion five-year campaign, is to raise funds for teaching and research to address urgent environmental issues.

The plan contains provisions for tapping the faculty's research expertise and using the campus as a laboratory to develop sustainability solutions and train and motivate students to address environmental challenges. The goals are to broaden interdisciplinary participation, advance connections between faculty and graduate student research and undergraduate education, and increase graduate student and undergraduate research opportunities. In the areas of civic engagement and communications, the goals are to develop leaders among the students, faculty and staff and to increase awareness of their responsibilities as citizens.

Strategies include supporting research projects, providing funds for the development of new courses, increasing support for student initiatives and creating media projects drawing on student experiences.

Weber, Princeton's sustainability manager, is looking forward to the increased involvement by students, faculty and staff.

"I arrived here less than two years ago and have seen tremendous growth in student interest in that brief time," she said. "The number of student groups focused on environmental issues has grown, as has the membership in each group. Students have been intimately involved in forming the plan, and will be key stakeholders in implementing many of the components and tracking progress. There is also growing awareness among faculty and staff as we roll out campus initiatives and educational programs."

That additional interest from other quarters of the University is crucial, according to Kelsey Stallings, a junior who is co-president of Greening Princeton. "With so much student interest and so many different student groups on campus, it is important for the more permanent institutions and members of the University to maintain the momentum and the progress," she said. "Because students are on campus for only four years, there is a risk of their accomplishments being lost upon graduation. This campus Sustainability Plan is a significant and necessary step for Princeton to become a leader in sustainability, and I think it definitely gives new confidence and motivation to students, as well as the rest of the community."

To launch the plan, a gift of term funds over four years has been pledged by the High Meadows Foundation. "Support from the High Meadows Foundation is a critical component for the Sustainability Plan to succeed," Burstein said. "These resources will fund initiatives that support goals set forth in the research, education and civic engagement section of the plan, including courses that use the campus as an environmental laboratory, student research into the 'life-cycle' of products for the purchasing department, and student initiatives such as implementation of an organic garden designed through a School of Architecture competition."

"Princeton University is to be commended for launching its excellent new Sustainability Plan," said John Cusack, executive director of the New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability. "This plan should ensure that Princeton continues to be on the leading edge of campus stewardship, preparing its students for a more sustainable society and committed to managing environmental issues locally, regionally and globally."

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