Leadership by Example: Campus-Community Collaboration on Climate Protection
I wrote the following for the October 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer and thought I should also share it here:
Embedded in the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) is the notion of leadership by example. By committing their institutions to the goal of carbon neutrality, the presidents who are signatories to the ACUPCC underscore the critical role of higher education in meeting the challenge of climate change and building a more sustainable future.
Universities and colleges in the United States have historically been crucibles of social change and laboratories for new ideas and creative solutions to some of society’s toughest problems. In this sense, the ACUPCC is part of a long tradition in our country. What is new, however, is the scale of the problem and the threat it poses to human civilization. Simply providing a model of sustainability will not suffice this time around. Campuses can only truly become sustainable if the communities around them are sustainable. In this sense, implicit in the ACUPCC is the commitment to not only dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the university or college, but also collaborate with the larger community in doing so.
The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) seeks to demonstrate what this kind of collaboration looks like and the impact it can have on a region’s economic and environmental health. With a population of about 100,000, Tompkins County includes three ACUPCC signatories: Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College. These three institutions also happen to be among the top employers in the county. At the same time, the city of Ithaca, the town of Ithaca, and the county government have made formal commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the latter calling for a decrease in emissions of 80 percent by 2050 and establishing an interim goal of 20 percent by 2020.
TCCPI seeks to leverage these climate action commitments to mobilize a countywide energy efficiency effort and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. The coalition, launched in June 2008, currently consists of local leaders from more than forty organizations, institutions, and businesses in the county organized into five sectors: business/financial, education, local government, nonprofit, and youth. Each of these sectors has selected a representative to the steering committee, which tracks the progress of the coalition’s projects and sets the agenda for the monthly meetings of the whole group.
Among the projects currently underway is an effort to explore the feasibility of a combined heating and power plant shared by Cayuga Medical Center and its next door neighbor, the Museum of the Earth. Working with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, TCCPI has also helped to support the establishment of the Tompkins County Energy Corps, which is made up of students from Cornell and Ithaca College who carry out informational energy audits for homeowners, share information with them about state and federal incentives, and encourage concrete steps to improve the energy performance of their residences. Other projects involve the implementation of a $375,000 EPA Climate Showcase Community grant secured by the Tompkins County Planning Office and EcoVillage at Ithaca, both TCCPI members, and the rollout this fall of a countywide campaign to raise awareness about the importance of energy savings.
Perhaps the most ambitious effort undertaken by TCCPI is its current attempt to shape the economic development agenda not just of Tompkins County but the seven other counties in the region that make up what is known as “the Southern Tier.” In particular, TCCPI has called for the implementation throughout the region of large-scale commercial energy efficiency and renewable energy projects totaling $100 million.
This past summer New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a sweeping new initiative that has created a remarkable opportunity for the Southern Tier to think strategically about major investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. The governor has established ten regional councils that have until November 14 to submit proposals for a share of a $1 billion fund established on behalf of a coordinated economic development strategy. Each of the councils is co-chaired by an academic and business leader. Governor Cuomo has appointed David Skorton, president of Cornell University, and Tom Tranter, president and CEO of Corning Enterprises, to head up the Southern Tier group.
The economic development funding has been put together from multiple agencies in the form of grants and tax incentives. The ability to leverage a small portion of this money to develop potential sites for energy upgrades, carry out the feasibility studies, and issue the RFPs would make it possible to secure the necessary private capital. These sites would primarily involve airports, school systems, college and university campuses, hospitals, and local government buildings, but could also include commercial and industrial buildings. TCCPI has proposed deploying $1 million in state support for a revolving fund to help attract up to $100 million in private capital. By aggregating the commercial energy efficiency and renewable energy projects and coordinating the effort, an attractive investment portfolio would be created, hundreds of jobs created, administrative costs substantially reduced, and significant energy savings realized.
The key, then, is scale. Such a far reaching initiative would require a collaborative platform similar to TCCPI for deploying clean energy technologies across government, commercial, industrial, and educational organizations for maximum impact on economic growth and environmental health. It remains to be seen whether Governor Cuomo will approve such an approach. But the energy working group of the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council has endorsed the TCCPI proposal and it has a good chance of being included in the overall package submitted to Cuomo on November 14.
The bottom line? TCCPI clearly represents the next logical stage in the process initiated by the ACUPCC. With its emphasis on campuses and communities partnering to engage climate and energy issues, the TCCPI model provides a framework for multisector collaboration that holds out hope of a brighter future for all, demonstrating that job creation, energy security, and responsible stewardship of the environment are not mutually exclusive.