Tompkins County Works to Reduce GHG Emissions

This piece originally appeared in the August 10th issue of the Tompkins Weekly.

As it has since 2009, the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) recently issued its annual report on member activities in 2021 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate the transition to clean energy.

A coalition of activists leaders and concerned citizens, TCCPI meets monthly to discuss and share information about what we can do locally to shrink our carbon footprint and help the community meet its ambitious climate goals. The new report includes 36 submissions and covers a wide range of inspiring activities that reflect the commitment and engagement of hundreds of individuals working together locally to better our world.

A view of Cayuga Lake. Environmental efforts across Tompkins County help protect this crucial natural resource.

Below is just a small sample of what the report covers. The full, text-only version can be found at tccpi.org/tccpi-2021.html. If you’d like a free, PDF copy of the illustrated 37-page report, contact us at info@tccpi.org.

The biggest news of 2021 was the Ithaca Common Council’s vote in November to begin decarbonization of the city’s 6,000 buildings (tinyurl.com/26y8exs5). Under the leadership of Luis Aguirre-Torres, who came on board in March as the city’s sustainability director, the plan secured $105 million in private investment to carry out energy efficiency retrofits and install heat pumps.

The initiative followed the adoption in June of the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement requiring net-zero construction for new buildings by 2026. The city also launched a process to implement all-renewable community choice aggregation for residents and proposed a 25-acre solar array in the southwest area of the city.

Other municipalities took important steps to facilitate the transition to clean energy. Tompkins County developed a Green Facilities Plan (tinyurl.com/ycglol6a) to improve energy efficiency of its buildings, and the Legislature approved a $7 million bond to kick off phase one of the plan.

The Town of Ithaca also adopted the Energy Code Supplement and joined with the city to develop a community choice aggregation program. The towns of Ithaca, Caroline and Dryden conducted clean heating programs in partnership with HeatSmart Tompkins, resulting in grant funding and numerous heat pump installations.

Dryden adopted the NYS Stretch Code to require higher energy efficiency in new construction and, along with the town of Ithaca, continued to install LED streetlights.

The highlight of 2021 in the transportation sector took place on Earth Day when Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) unveiled its first-ever fleet of electric buses. The Center for Community Transportation (CCT), Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCE-Tompkins) and Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) carried out key efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

CCT’s Ithaca Carshare, Bike Walk Tompkins (and its signature program Streets Alive! Ithaca) and Backup Ride Home all continued to play vital roles in promoting alternatives to car ownership and single-occupancy commuting, as did CCE-Tompkins’ Way2Go and DIA’s GO Ithaca.

CTC and CCE-Tompkins also collaborated on identifying and addressing barriers to the wider adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) among underserved populations. In addition, TCAT, Ithaca Carshare and CCE-Tompkins partnered on several events offering opportunities to see EVs and speak with EV owners. Both Tompkins County and Ithaca Carshare added several EVs to their fleets, and the city explored ways to electrify its fleet and deploy a shared electric bike program.

Recycling, reuse and waste management also saw significant new developments in 2021. Finger Lakes ReUse made perhaps the biggest splash with its opening of the ReUse MegaCenter at Triphammer Marketplace. The new location, with a half-acre of retail space, is now one of the largest reuse business locations in upstate New York.

In all, Finger Lakes ReUse diverted an estimated 1,023 tons of materials through its three locations, including furniture, building materials, housewares, electronics, books, textiles, appliances and more.

Cornell University has reduced campus waste by one-third in the last five years, and reuse and reclamation doubled in the last year.

Twelve restaurants and eateries on The Commons support Zero Waste Tompkins’ Ithaca Reduces program by asking customers to bring their own containers and cups. Furthermore, downtown Ithaca has about a dozen independent, locally owned stores that specialize in reuse and recycled products.

Education and advocacy were crucial components of the climate protection effort in 2021. Cornell and CCE-Tompkins, in particular, played major parts on the education front. Thanks to the ongoing integration of sustainability into campus learning and research, 100% of Cornell students now graduate with sustainability learning outcomes, beginning with a requirement that all incoming students complete a sustainability assessment and learning module.

Over 40 living laboratory projects take place each year using the campus as an innovation hub for sustainability solutions. Students can major, minor or concentrate in 87 programs focused on sustainability. Nearly all academic departments are currently undertaking sustainability-focused research, including 619 faculty fellows associated with the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

These and other achievements earned the university a third consecutive Platinum rating in 2022 from STARS, the international gold standard for assessing campus sustainability work.

At CCE-Tompkins, the Energy and Climate Change team worked with city staff and other key community stakeholders to explore strategies for community education and outreach around the Ithaca Green New Deal (IGND). The city sustainability office and CCE-Tompkins joined with the training program Roots of Success to begin development of a regional workforce training ecosystem.

In addition, CCE-Tompkins staff created resources for CCE educators across the state on large-scale solar development and reducing energy use. Get Your GreenBack, which became part of CCE-Tompkins in late 2021, saw its volunteer Energy Navigator program expand dramatically with a NYSERDA grant to revise its curriculum and take its operation statewide.

The tiny home PowerHouse proved to be a big hit, demonstrating at outreach events and school programs how to reduce energy use and transition to renewable energy. Together with HeatSmart Tompkins and Sustainable Finger Lakes (formerly Sustainable Tompkins), these efforts helped to increase the adoption of home energy retrofits and heat pumps.

PRI/Museum of the Earth, the Sciencenter, New Roots Charter School, the Ithaca 2030 District, TCCPI and the Tompkins County Environmental Management Council carried out other important educational work regarding climate, energy and sustainability in 2021.

Advocacy activities took on an increasing sense of urgency as climate change accelerated in 2021. The local chapters of Citizens Climate Lobby and Climate Reality Project worked to raise awareness about federal legislation such as the carbon dividend bill and the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which in 2019 established aggressive climate targets.

Fossil Free Tompkins (FFT) and HeatSmart Tompkins actively participated in the statewide Renewable Heat Now coalition, which scored important victories in the recent legislative session, including passage of a moratorium on the use of fossil fuel plants for cryptocurrency mining.

FFT and other local environmentalist organizations campaigned to ensure that Greenidge Power Plant did not get its air permit renewed, and these groups also supported the successful purchase by Finger Lakes Land Trust of NYSEG’s Bell Station property. Sunrise Ithaca held events throughout 2021, including a Green Building Policy Town Hall, several climate rallies and a community forum on the implementation of the IGND.

At the heart of all this outstanding work, as always, was the Park Foundation. Without its generous, ongoing financial support and guidance, many if not most of the activities captured in the TCCPI report would not have occurred. The community owes a debt of gratitude to the foundation and its extraordinary record of civic betterment.

 

COP24, Wishful Thinking, and the U.S.

When the UN climate talks at COP24 opened in Katowice, Poland earlier this month, there was good reason to be concerned about the outcome. After much infighting, however, delegates at the last minute settled on most of the rules for putting the 2015 Paris agreement into practice. The new pact outlined how countries will provide information about their climate actions, including mitigation and adaptation measures, as well as steps to provide financial support for climate action in developing countries.

“The guidelines will promote trust among nations that all countries are playing their part in addressing the challenge of climate change,” declared the official UN statement issued at the conclusion of the gathering. One could be forgiven, however, for believing this press release reflected wishful thinking more than actual reality.

COP 24 opening plenary. Photo by UNclimatechange licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The agreement, for example, called on countries to step up their plans to cut emissions ahead of another round of talks in 2020. But the key question of how countries will bolster their targets on cutting emissions was largely overlooked.

Current targets, agreed to in the wake of the Paris climate talks in 2015, put the world on course for 3C of warming from pre-industrial levels, which scientists say would be disastrous, resulting in droughts, floods, rising sea levels, and a sharp reduction in agricultural productivity.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of COP24 was the obstructionist role played by the US. While the country provided important leadership in securing the Paris climate agreement, it proved to be far less constructive in Katowice. Throughout the negotiations the US delegation sought to water down language. Siding with the oil and gas nations of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, it blocked the conference from “welcoming” the IPCC report on the impacts of a temperature rise of 1.5C.

Just as infuriating, the US held an event at the conference promoting the continued use of coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. In contrast, the European Union and several other developed countries joined with dozens of developing nations in declaring they would focus on preventing a 1.5C rise in their carbon-cutting efforts.

At this point in the climate crisis, it should be clear that there are only two ways to move forward. One is to implement clean energy technology on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Program and stop the burning of fossil fuels. The other is to accept that billions of people will suffer and die because we refuse to take this course.

Which path will our community adopt? This is the question we should be asking ourselves at every turn, whether it is expanding the North Campus at Cornell, developing the Green Street Garage Project, repowering Cayuga Power Plant, or implementing a new Green Building Policy for the City and Town of Ithaca. We can criticize the lack of commitment and refusal of the US to address the pressing issues of climate change at global summits, but can we let ourselves off the hook? Clearly, we need to set a new course and act with a greater sense of urgency. As Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, told the COP24 delegates, “we are facing an existential threat and there is no time to continue down this road of madness.”

Time for Some Good News?

There are plenty of discouraging climate-related developments out there — Hurricane Matthew, wildfires in the West, the ongoing drought in central New York. You don’t even have to look beyond our country’s borders to find enough bad news to make you want to pull the covers over your head. And, globally speaking, we’re still on track for 2016 to be the warmest year since records began in 1880.

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Hurricane Matthew

But believe it or not there’s actually been quite a bit of good news so far in October. As Vox reported the other day, here’s what this month has brought so far:

1) Canada is putting a nationwide carbon tax in place. On October 4, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government the  tax starting in 2018.

2) That same day the Paris climate agreement went into effect. Enough countries ratified the the deal so it’s now officially “in force.” Governments will have to regularly report and review their progress on emissions to the UN.

3) A new global deal on aviation emissions was signed two days later. More than 190 countries  agreed to offset much of the global growth in aviation emissions starting in 2020. This deal has plenty of flaws but it’s the first time the International Civil Aviation Organization has addressed the climate impact of flying, one of the fastest-growing sources of CO2.

4) Finally, on October 15, 197 countries  agreed to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a very potent greenhouse gas used in refrigerators and air conditioners. Vox described this as “probably the most important climate policy taken to date.” It’s estimated that the HFC treaty alone could prevent between 0.2°C and 0.44°C of warming by the end of the century. When ratified, this agreement will be legally binding and enforceable through trade sanctions.

Closer to home, we’ve also seen some positive developments recently:

1) Cornell just issued an important report outlining its options for meeting its target of carbon neutrality by 2035.  The release of the report by the Senior Leader Climate Action Group, will begin the next phase of campus and community engagement around this very ambitious goal.

2) New York’s  2016 Energy Conservation Construction Code went into effect on October 3rd for residential and commercial buildings. The new code calls for improvements in the design and construction of energy-efficient building envelopes and the installation of energy-efficient mechanical, lighting and power systems through requirements emphasizing performance.

3) The Tompkins County Planning Department announced that it has completed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventories. The report shows that the Tompkins County Community reduced its emissions by 21% between 2008 and 2014 and Tompkins County Government reduced its emissions by 53% during this same period. The not-so-good news, however, is that when fugitive methane emissions outside of the County are taken into account total emissions due to expanded natural gas use have probably risen significantly.

4) Last but not least, in August New York established the Clean Energy Standard, a mandate that requires 50 percent of New York’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2030. The Clean Energy Standard is critical to reducing the State’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Of course, even when the impact of all these developments is added up, we still don’t come close to keeping global warming below 2°C, the generally agreed upon ceiling for preventing runaway climate change. But they demonstrate that collective action is possible and by joining together we can build on these achievements to make further progress. As Bill McKibben points out, “”The most important thing an individual can do is not be an individual…Job one is to organize and jobs two and three.”

Campus-Community Collaboration in the Age of Climate Distruption

Few institutions are better positioned to provide the leadership required to avoid runaway climate change than higher education. Indeed, it is hard to see where else the necessary leadership will come from if universities and colleges don’t step up to take on this responsibility. Not just any kind of leadership will do the trick, however. It must be collaborative, adopting an ethos of cooperation and mutuality rather than top-down hierarchical structuring.

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Cornell University

Universities and colleges in the United States historically have been crucibles of social change and laboratories for new ideas and creative solutions to some of society’s toughest problems. What is new is the scale of the problem and the threat it poses to human civilization. Simply providing models of sustainability on campus will not suffice. Universities and colleges can become truly sustainable only if they adopt the perspective of “ecosystem awareness” and work with the communities around them to become sustainable. They must commit to dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of campuses and become examples of ecological integrity, social justice and economic health. Beyond that, they must collaborate with the larger community and, in so doing, enable solutions to be scaled up and replicated.

As Michael Young, president of the University of Washington, argues, higher education must go beyond greening the campus. “For colleges and universities — especially public ones — engaging with our communities is fundamental to our mission,” he said. “We all have a responsibility to turn our universities inside out — that is, to take the wealth of ideas percolating on our campuses into our community, whether that community is across the street or across the globe.”

TCCPI seeks to lead the way

New York’s Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), at which I am a coordinator, was inspired in particular by similar efforts in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Oberlin, Ohio. It seeks to demonstrate what this kind of collaboration looks like and the impact it can have on a region’s economic, social and environmental health. With a population of about 100,000, Tompkins County includes three American College and University President Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) signatories (which also happen to be among the top employers in the county): Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College. In addition, the city of Ithaca, the towns of Ithaca, Caroline and Danby and the county all have made formal commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the county calling for a decrease in emissions of 80 percent by 2050 and establishing an interim goal of 20 percent by 2020.

TCCPI has leveraged these climate action commitments to help mobilize a countywide energy efficiency effort, expand the production of renewable energy and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. The coalition, launched in June 2008, currently consists of local leaders from more than 40 organizations, institutions and businesses in the county, organized into five sectors: business, education, local government, nonprofit and youth. Each sector has a representative serving on the steering committee, which tracks the progress of the coalition’s projects and sets the agenda for the group’s monthly meetings.

The most immediate way in which TCCPI has adopted a collaborative model of leadership and sought to be a “leader-as-host” is to provide an ongoing forum where local leaders can come together regularly, share their progress and challenges and brainstorm collectively about ideas and solutions. In some cases, it’s hard to imagine how the outcomes resulting from these meetings would have emerged without years of building trust and thinking collaboratively. For example, the Tompkins County Planning Department and EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI) never had worked together in the nearly two decades since EVI was founded. Yet, at a TCCPI meeting in June 2010, the group came up with the notion of the planning department and EVI’s joining hands to submit a proposal to the EPA Climate Showcase Community Grant Program, which seeks to highlight community efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

The grant proposal, submitted the next month, outlined a strategy for disseminating to the larger community the important lessons learned at EVI about shrinking one’s carbon footprint and developing ways that the county could incorporate these key principles into its planning for future development. EPA awarded a $375,000 grant and work began in February 2011. Two model developments, one at EVI and another at a pocket neighborhood downtown, already are underway, and the county has proposed a third development near the regional medical center. All are designed to highlight innovative approaches to “creating dense neighborhoods that enhance residents’ quality of life while using fewer resources.”

Another project growing out of TCCPI discussions is the installation of photovoltaic arrays at numerous sites in the county, including several county government buildings, businesses and higher education institutions. In the area of energy efficiency, TCCPI has worked with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCETC) to support the establishment of the Tompkins County Energy Corps, 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 their residences’ energy performance. TCCPI also has worked closely with CCETC in rolling out a countywide campaign, “Get Your Greenback Tompkins,” to raise awareness about the importance of energy savings.

In these latter two instances, TCCPI shared its own financial resources to help launch the projects. In other cases, it has lent its social capital to help projects obtain the necessary financial capital. Two original members of the TCCPI steering committee serve on the founding board of Black Oak Wind Farm, an 11.9 megawatt project just outside Ithaca slated to be in production by the summer of 2015.

The first community wind project in the region, Black Oak has raised its seed capital of $1.82 million from about 110 local investors. The TCCPI network provided a crucial resource in reaching out to many of these people and persuading them to invest in the wind farm and purchase power from it.

What’s next

TCCPI’s latest initiative marks perhaps its most important effort yet to be a “leader-as-host.” The coalition is working with downtown Ithaca property owners to form a 2030 District, a public/private partnership in which property owners and managers come together with local government, business and community leaders to provide a model for urban sustainability through collaboration, leveraged financing and shared resources. Across the country, 2030 Districts are being established to meet the energy, water and vehicle emissions targets called for by Architecture 2030 in the 2030 Challenge for Planning.

The bottom line? TCCPI embodies the next logical stage in the higher education sustainability movement. It not only promotes collaboration among the local higher education institutions, but also encourages engagement with the community at large in a democratic process. It seeks to draw together key stakeholders and engage them in a course of action that begins with discovering and making explicit common intention, and ends with collectively creating the kinds of innovation needed to effectively address intractable problems. With its emphasis on campuses and communities partnering to address climate and energy issues, TCCPI — like the Oberlin and Grand Rapids models it was based on — provides a framework for multi-sector collaboration that holds out hope of a brighter future for all. It demonstrates that job creation, energy security, more resilient communities and responsible stewardship of the environment are not mutually exclusive.

There is no silver bullet, no magic wand, which can make the immense problems confronting us go away. A necessary if not sufficient condition, though, is that we move from the old myths of independence and self-reliance and acknowledge the truths of interdependence and mutuality. In an increasingly secular world, universities and colleges are among the few institutions that have the capacity to promote this broader, long-term understanding of where the human experiment must head.

Note: This piece was orginally published by GreenBiz.com and can be found here.

From “Egosystem Awareness” to “Ecosystem Awareness”

“The future ain’t what it used to be,” Yogi Berra once declared.[i] He wasn’t talking about climate change, but he could’ve been. Eight out of the nine hottest years on record worldwide, including last year, have occurred since 2000. The rate of the Arctic summer melt is accelerating at an astonishing pace and the latest reports now predict that we could have ice free summers in the Arctic as early as 2015.

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The Mauna Loa Observatory

Scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii announced this past May that for the first time in human history the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 400 ppm. The last time carbon dioxide levels were this high was probably in the Pliocene epoch, over three million years ago. To top it off, a paper just published in Nature predicts that by mid-century over half the planet will be experiencing average temperatures equivalent to the hottest days recorded since 1860.[ii]

As bad as this news is, and it is bad, there is some really good news on the clean energy front. According to a recent flurry of studies, we have the ability with existing technology to get 80-100 percent of our power from wind, sun, water, tides, and other renewable sources, and prevent runaway climate change, far worse than what is already locked in, from taking place. A 2011 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, concluded that already existing technologies could, in combination, make up almost 80 percent of our energy supply by 2050 and cut greenhouse gas emissions by a third from business-as-usual projections.[iii] Earlier this year, Stanford and Cornell researchers issued a detailed analysis explaining how wind, water, and solar power could replace all fossil fuels in New York State in an economically viable way if the external health and environmental costs are taken into account.[iv] In both cases, the message is the same: the critical missing components are the policies necessary to drive change in this direction and the political will to implement them.

At another, deeper level, of course, climate destabilization is more than a physical problem to be solved by technology or a policy problem to be solved by politics. It is, in Malcolm Bull’s words, “an ethical problem that necessarily requires moral solutions.”[v] The real question is not so much whether we have the technical ability or the political will to slow down the rate of global warming but whether we have the capacity to expand our moral imagination so that we can grasp the importance of doing so.

Transforming our exploitation of Earth into a relationship that is mutually beneficial must be at the core of this enlarged moral imagination. We need to move from what Otto Scharmer calls “egosystem awareness to ecosystem awareness.” In Scharmer’s words, “we have to open up, let go of the past, and tune in to what we feel is a field of future possibility, something that might be possible, something that we could bring into reality, a future that would be very different from the past.”[vi] Unless we act now to make this shift to “ecosystem awareness,” devoting ourselves to preserve and enhance the life, beauty, and diversity of the planet for future generations, we will become, as Thomas Berry writes, “impoverished in all that makes us human.”[vii]

Notes

A longer version of this post was originally published in Second Nature’s The Implementer newsletter in November 2013.

[i] Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said (New York: Workman Publishing, 1989), pp. 118-19.

[ii] Tia Ghose, “NASA: 2012 Was 9th Hottest Year on Record Worldwide,” Live Science, January 15, 2013. http://www.livescience.com/26277-nasa-2012-ninth-hottest-year.html.; Nafeez Ahmed, “White House Warned on Imminent Arctic Ice Death Spiral,” The Guardian, May 2, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/earth-insight/2013/may/02/white-house-arctic-ice-death-spiral; John Vidal, “Global Carbon Dioxide Levels Set to Pass 400 ppm Milestone,” The Guardian, April 29, 2013. http://www.guardiannews.com/environment/2013/apr/29/global-carbon-dioxide-levels; Andrew Simms, “Why Did the 400 ppm Carbon Milestone Cause Barely a Ripple?” The Guardian, May 30, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2013/may/30/carbon-milestone-newspapers; Justin Gillis, “By 2047, Coldest Years May Be Warmer Than Hottest in Past, Scientists Say,” New York Times, October 9, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/10/science/earth/by-2047-coldest-years-will-be-warmer-than-hottest-in-past.html.

[iii] IPCC, Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. Prepared by Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/report.

[iv] Mark Z. Jacobson, et al., “Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State’s All-Purpose Energy Infrastructure to One Using Wind, Water, and Sunlight,” Energy Policy (2013). http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/NewYorkWWSEnPolicy.pdf. See also Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030,” Scientific American, 301 (November 2009): 38-65. http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/sad1109Jaco5p.indd.pdf; Adam White and Jason Anderson, “Re-energising Europe: Putting the EU on Track for 100% Renewable Energy.” 2013 World Wildlife Fund Report. http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/res_report_final_1.pdf.

[v] Malcolm Bull, “What is the Rational Response?” London Review of Books, vol. 34, no. 10 (May 24, 2012), pp. 3-6. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n10/malcolm-bull/what-is-the-rational-response.

[vi] C. Otto Scharmer, “The Blind Spot of Institutional Leadership: How to Create Deep Innovation through Moving from Egosystem to Ecosystem Awareness,” delivered at the World Economic Forum, September 2010, Tinjan, China. http://www.ottoscharmer.com/docs/articles/2011_BMZ_Forum_Scharmer.pdf.

[vii] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower Books, 2007), pp. 201, 200.

No Easy Answers

With Earth Day weekend fast approaching, the calendar is filling up with all kinds of events to mark the observance: conferences, lectures, summits, fairs, and film screenings. Spring is late in coming to the Finger Lakes this year but, if we’re lucky, the weather forecast might hold up and the warmer temperatures will continue and maybe, just maybe we’ll even get some sunshine in time for the celebrations.

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Cayuga Power Plant

It’s no little irony that at the same time we recommit to becoming better stewards of our life support system otherwise known as “the environment,” we are faced with the dilemma of how to respond to the news that Cayuga Power Plant is seeking to shift from coal to natural gas. While many are touting natural gas as a cleaner burning alternative to coal, recent reports coming out of Cornell and elsewhere suggest that the methane emissions released during the life cycle of natural gas production and distribution, not just combustion, make it as dirty or perhaps even dirtier than coal.

So what to do? Cayuga Power Plant supplies over 300 megawatts of electricity to the grid and is not easily replaced. It also is a key source of property taxes for both the town of Lansing and Tompkins County. Shutting it down would have a major impact on the area’s economy.

There is no easy answer and there will be huge trade offs regardless of what course we take. If nothing else, the Cayuga Power Plant stands as a stark reminder of just how deeply embedded we are in the fossil fuel regime and just how difficult it will be extricate ourselves from it.

The debate over how to move forward has the potential to be a crucial teachable moment in the life of our community, reminding us that there are always consequences to our decisions, whether conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional. Perhaps one of the best ways we can observe this year’s Earth Day is to recognize there are no easy answers, only complexities and challenges that we must confront and work our way through.

TCCPI Receives Cornell Sustainability Award

In honor of Sustainability Month, the Cornell University President’s Sustainable Campus Committee presented the second annual Partners in Sustainability Award to the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) on Friday, April 29, 2011.

The award recognizes TCCPI for its ongoing partnership in regional carbon reduction strategies. Cornell cited TCCPI as an effective partner in the regional effort to conserve energy and reduce carbon emissions. “By recognizing groups that partner with higher education institutions to advance sustainability, we build on the successes of research and teaching, and acknowledge that we must also bring together practitioners and leaders throughout the world in support new policies and practices,” Daniel Roth, Cornell University sustainability manager, said.

Cornell’s Partners in Sustainability Award is given each year to one or more recipients who have made significant contributions to the sustainable development of New York State and the Cornell campus through collaboration with Cornell University. The 2010 recipient was the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) for its leadership in statewide energy conservation and renewable energy initiatives.

Gary Stewart, director of community relations at Cornell University, wrote in an Ithaca Journal op-ed earlier this week about how collaboration among the varied members of the TCCPI coalition is at the heart of its organizational culture. As he observes, “TCCPI represents the spirit of new-era democracy, with bigger-business advocates sitting next to Snug Planet, with large-scale power generators conferring with EcoVillage, or with Tompkins County Solid Waste having the opportunity to compare notes with Museum of the Earth. TCCPI sessions are about partnerships and progress in Tompkins County.”

Partnerships are the key to building a more sustainable future. Only if we harness the power of the network will we effectively address such issues as climate destabilization and clean energy. Especially in the context of the current national and international stalemate on climate policy, it is clear that communities must take up a collaborative effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, and adopt renewable energy technologies. TCCPI is honored to receive the 2011 Partners in Sustainability Award from Cornell University.

Tompkins County at Forefront of New Clean Energy, Climate Plans

Recent events have underscored the slow and uneven pace of progress at the national level regarding clean energy and climate change policies.  In this light, it’s also clear that in the immediate future, most real work on these fronts will occur at the local, state, and regional levels.

As early as 2002, the Tompkins County Legislature committed to a 20 percent reduction in the county government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2008 compared to 1998 levels. Mayor Carolyn Peterson was one of the original signatories of the 2005 U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and the Ithaca Common Council in 2006 adopted a goal to lower greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 2001 levels by 2016.

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Cornell University and Ithaca College in 2007 signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), whose long-term goal is to achieve climate neutrality. Tompkins Cortland Community College became a signatory the following year, and the three institutions have since invested significant effort towards fulfilling this promise.  Cornell’s climate action plan earned it a leadership award last month from Second Nature, which launched the ACUPCC and oversees its operations.

The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), beginning in 2008, has built on this impressive foundation to forge a coalition of local community leaders who are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating the transition to an efficient, clean energy economy. With generous support from the Park Foundation, TCCPI has brought together Cornell, IC, and TC3, Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Extension, the County Legislature and Planning Department and nonprofits such as the Cayuga Medical Center, Museum of the Earth, Tompkins Community Action, and Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services. Key business organizations such as the Ithaca Downtown Alliance, Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, Tompkins County Area Development, and Landlords Association of Tompkins County round out the coalition.

The Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions (EGGE) element, adopted as part of the 2004 Tompkins County Comprehensive Plan in 2008, provides the guiding framework for TCCPI. The EEGE element calls for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with an annual goal of 2 percent of 2008 level over the next four decades to achieve that reduction. County planners recently secured the support of the County Legislature for an energy action plan that would lead to a 20 percent reduction in the county’s carbon footprint by 2020.

Besides facilitating the implementation of a common strategy, target, and timetable for achieving significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, TCCPI’s networks are exploring potential financing strategies for purchasing and investing, and new tools that will allow us to monitor our progress through effective data collection and analysis. In the process, by creating a culture of collaboration, we hope to become a model for other communities throughout the nation seeking to adopt efficient, clean energy and effective climate protection.

Note: This piece appeared originally in the Ithaca Journal, December 6, 2010.

Code Green for Higher Education?

Thomas Friedman’s new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America, is an impassioned plea for what he calls “Code Green” — a strategy for clean energy, energy efficiency, and conservation that would address global climate change and sustainability while also renewing the spirit of innovation and idealism in the U.S.

So what would “Code Green” mean for higher education? As the National Wildlife Federation’s report on campus sustainability noted last month, the record for colleges and universities is mixed. The survey of 1,068 institutions found that real headway had been made in the areas of research, campus operations, and community outreach, but it revealed much less success in greening the classroom.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that most colleges and universities are treating sustainability either as a fad or as one more thing to stir into the mix, rather than as a transformative process. A good sign — perhaps the best one — that an institution is taking sustainability seriously is when it begins to integrate sustainability across the curriculum. That’s the heart of the matter, after all.

Frank Rhodes, former president of Cornell University suggests that the concept of sustainability offers “a new foundation for the liberal arts and sciences.” It provides a new focus, sense of urgency, and curricular coherence at a time of drift, fragmentation, and insularity in higher education, what he calls “a new kind of global map.”

At the same time, though, Rhodes notes that the “broad range of questions that sustainability raises have no single set of answers.” Experimentation, discovery, and exploration, rather than dogma and indoctrination, are the keys to mining its value as a way to frame the crucial issues of our time.

“Code Green” can provide a vital source of hope and opportunity for facilitating institutional renewal and revitalizing higher education’s sense of mission. Growing out of a keen awareness that the economy, society, and environment are closely intertwined, sustainability fosters a culture of innovation, creativity, and holistic thinking. It provides a way to bring fresh thinking to bear on old problems and identifies new solutions that can move higher education forward even as it better prepares students to be engaged citizens, active leaders, and successful professionals.

Embracing Friedman’s call for “Code Green” in higher education would mean adopting it as a core strategy. As Andrea Putman and I argue in our forthcoming book, Boldly Sustainable: Hope and Opportunity for Higher Education in the Age of Climate Change, it would mean not viewing sustainability as marginal to the real business of colleges and universities or as an “add on.” Instead, sustainability would be seen as the central organizing principle in an intellectual, social, and financial sense. And it would be recognized that these three strands cannot be unraveled and separated out, one from the other, without undermining the capacity of higher education to be an effective force in 21st-century democratic society.

Note: This post originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Building and Grounds Blog here.