A Greener Pittsburgh, a Better Planet

by David Finegold, President of Chatham University. This article was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Read what one Pittsburgh university is doing to reduce its carbon footprint in this opinion article from the June 4, 2017, publication of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Creating a healthy planet and economy is possible. Here’s how.

In its most recent annual report on the state of the global climate, the World Meteorological Organization confirmed that 2016 was the warmest year on record. The report also stated that the influence of human activity on the planet’s climate system was becoming increasingly evident, making the implementation of the 2015 Paris climate agreement an integral part of continuing to curb greenhouse gases.

Honoring our commitments under the Paris agreement is critical to ensuring that the United States will lead and not miss the transformative economic opportunities its implementation will create, and it is unfortunate that the Trump administration on Thursday announced its decision to pull America from the pact. These opportunities are being led by universities — here in Pittsburgh and around the world — as they showcase how it is possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, build the clean energy economy, prepare students for the jobs of the future and pursue economically sound solutions toward achieving carbon neutrality.

A decade ago, after the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the Kyoto agreement, threatening to undermine global progress in combating climate change, leading American universities came together to make a historic pledge for a different future: to reach carbon neutrality by 2025. I’m proud that Chatham University was a charter signatory of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, which now includes nearly 100 colleges and universities.

At Chatham, our efforts in pursuit of this goal have helped us reduce our net CO2 emissions by 20 percent, at the same time that our headcount has grown by 45 percent and we’ve expanded from one to three campuses. This shows that pursuing growth and investment, while also reducing emissions, is possible. Here’s how Chatham is doing it and how others can, too.

The reality is that over half of our annual emissions come from our electricity, because the grid in our region is primarily coal. To address this, we prioritize electrical efficiency across all campuses using simple-to-implement strategies, including installing LED lighting in all buildings and outdoors, adding motion sensors to turn off lights, and more. In addition, as a supporting member of the Pittsburgh Climate Initiative Higher Education Climate Consortium, Chatham purchases 100 percent of our electricity from a Green-E certified blend of renewable energy, primarily wind power.

In addition, we’ve invested in an innovative solar thermal system — one of the largest solar thermal hot water installations in the eastern U.S. — at two residence halls on our Shadyside campus. To date, it has lowered the use of natural gas in the buildings by 30 percent. Buildings at our new Eden Hall campus have been constructed to LEED Platinum standards, over 400 solar panels power the campus, geothermal wells provide all heating and cooling, and the campus is well on its way to a goal of one day achieving net-zero energy.

By prioritizing energy efficiency upgrades along with using the latest in green building technology, Chatham achieved a 32 percent reduction in electricity from 2007 to 2015. This is a tangible cost savings that helps our bottom line, supports the local economy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Our next largest source of emissions is transportation — the campus fleet and the cars belonging to faculty, staff and students. We have added shuttles to move more people per trip, given everyone a free bus pass, connected our shuttles to the busway, provided bike rentals and a bike repair shop, offered car-sharing and more.

Other key contributors to our emissions footprint are food and waste. A simple step like eliminating trays reduced food waste by 25 percent. To further reduce our environmental impact, we have implemented the use of pre- and post-consumer materials in the dining halls as part of an extensive composting program and collect certain types of food waste for recycling at a regional biodiesel plant.

As a result of these efforts, today Chatham is one of the highest-ranked universities for STARS, the most comprehensive sustainability ranking system worldwide. Our cross-university commitment to sustainability has helped Chatham grow and prosper, and our Falk School of Sustainability & Environment brings together students and partners from around the region and world who are committed to working together to build a better future for the planet.

We strongly support the continued involvement of the United States in the Paris agreement and hope the Trump administration will reconsider its decision. The Paris agreement is good for our environment, economy and future. However, whatever current or future political considerations may bring, we will continue our work and look forward to joining other government, business, nonprofit and university leaders across Pittsburgh in building a greener, more equitable and more livable city that benefits us all.