A university strives for the high road to sustainability

Many universities are trying to bring sustainability to campus through measures such as serving organic food in dining halls, using carbon-neutral power sources and constructing buildings that qualify for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. Yet some institutions have expressed concern that some of these efforts do little to reduce environmental impact. Chemist David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., recently sat down with Science News writer Rachel Ehrenberg to discuss walking the green line.

DAVID OXTOBY “We could spend some money to become carbon neutral immediately, just by buying carbon credits. I think that’s a really false sense of sustainability.” Pomona College

Outside of curriculum changes, how has Pomona approached sustainability?

Just before I arrived, the college had developed a policy on building standards for sustainability, but we’ve pushed that forward in several directions. In particular, we now have a policy of LEED Gold for all new construction, and if anything, to go beyond LEED Gold. We’re really trying to develop our own standards, which are in some cases California-specific. The LEED standards are fine in general across the country, but one of the things we find is that water use is so important in California, but it may not be as important in some other part of the country. The LEED standards are really too generic, so we’re going beyond those standards.

There are always challenges, certainly with the balance between LEED standards, on the one hand — reducing energy costs and sustainability — and the aesthetics. We just have a new residence hall underway. And there were two groups, both on campus and on the board of trustees, and one group wanted to build a traditional building that in California would have red tile roofs, and another group wanted solar panels covering the roofs. We decided with the latter. We went in the sustainability direction partly because it was on the edge of the campus. If it had been at the core, we might have decided we wanted to have that character.

I’m personally pretty critical of the LEED-standard approach because there are things where if you put on a solar roof, it will get you one point and that will cost you say, a million dollars. And if you put in some bike racks, that will get you one point, which costs you nothing. So the gamesmanship bothers me. So although we are designing to LEED Gold, we are trying to be much more serious and spending the money that it takes to build buildings that really are sustainable.

You also have criticisms of the carbon credit approach. Why?

It’s not that I’m totally opposed to it. I’m a skeptic about the zero-carbon concept and, in particular, about moving toward that by buying carbon credits.

There are certainly students who think we should go carbon neutral immediately. We have an endowment, we’re a relatively well-off college, why don’t we just start buying these carbon credits? And we could. If we wanted to, we could spend some money to become carbon neutral immediately, just by buying carbon credits. I think that’s a really false sense of sustainability. In my view carbon credits are underpriced — the cost of serious investment to reduce energy [use] is much higher than that. We’re spending more money than that, for example, to build solar roofs, and if we were to divert that into carbon credits, it would save us money — but I don’t think it would accomplish the goal of reducing our use of energy.

Frankly I see it as somewhat arrogant. We’ll go ahead and spend lots of money on air-conditioning or whatever, but we’ll pay someone else to reduce their energy costs in some way. So we’ll buy our way out of it. I think there are many people who are skeptical about the global market for carbon credits and how well-regulated they are and whether it’s really clear that the projects [that the credits fund] would have been done anyway, for example.

How do you balance sustainability against other concerns?

We had a sort of funny discussion. Several people on campus, both faculty and students, were arguing that Pomona should change the fundamental nature of our students, that we were being very nonsustainable by drawing students from all over the country because of course they fly long distances to get there … so we should just be local. So you can go too far in that direction. To me the goal of getting a group of students together and teaching them outweighs the fact that some of them have to fly long distances. So you need to take everything with a grain of salt. If you try and make everything as carbon neutral as possible, then you are not going to be, in the long run, creating the educational experience that’s going to create the future scientists who are going to solve a big problem.