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Cohon yet to sign PCC

Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon has made efforts to improve environmental sustainability on campus, such as establishing the campus policy to make all newly constructed buildings meet Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) silver certification. Cohon has an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Cohon has recently received criticism for his failure to join over 600 of his peers in signing what has become a highly publicized and scrutinized document: the Presidents Climate Compact (PCC).

The compact aims to “address the climate challenge by eliminating global warming emissions and by integrating sustainability into [the university’s] curriculum ... [and to] better serve their students and meet their social mandate to help create a thriving, ethical and civil society.”

This past November, the William J. Clinton Foundation announced a partnership with five major banks, including Citibank, J.P. Morgan Chase, and UBS, that will provide universities that sign the compact with financial incentives to achieve carbon neutrality. Carnegie Mellon demonstrates the qualities valued by the compact in numerous ways. Various organizations on campus such as Sustainable Earth and Eco-Reps provide outlets for students to impact the sustainability of our campus and talk with fellow students about environmental issues.

Carnegie Mellon’s interdisciplinary departments, such as the engineering and public policy (EPP) department, offer classes that entail interactive research. In the spring of 2008, EPP students completed a carbon emissions inventory and made recommendations for carbon reductions on the Carnegie Mellon campus.

By agreeing to sign the compact, the president of the university agrees to make certain efforts towards achieving carbon neutrality.

The requirements are numerous and include benchmarks that Carnegie Mellon has already surpassed.

For example, the compact requires that participating universities purchase at least 15 percent of electricity from renewable sources within one year of signing.

In 2009, 21 percent of Carnegie Mellon’s electricity will come from renewable or “green” sources, including landfill gas and wind energy.

Although Carnegie Mellon is ahead of many peer institutions who have signed the compact, there remains no single way to compare carbon emissions of one university to another.

The compact requires all universities to perform a calculation of total carbon emissions but requires no uniform standards, making it impossible to measure one university’s progress against another.

The compact website verifies there is currently “no established certification system for carbon offsets” and recommends that participating campuses use the “Clean Air Cool Planet’s Campus Carbon Calculator.” One member of the compact, the College of the Atlantic, is heading a committee to establish these standards, but there is no timeline available for anticipated results. The interim “Clean Air Cool Planet” calculating tool that was recommended tells those collecting data to “be creative and be patient; the process may be imperfect but the results will be worth it.”

Carnegie Mellon researchers in the engineering and public policy department were so concerned about the implications of the sudden appearance of online carbon calculation tools that they published their concerns and co-authored an article for Environmental Science & Technology in summer 2008.

One of the authors, associate professor of engineering and public policy H. Scott Matthews, collaborated with decision science and EPP professor Paul Fischbeck to develop an alternative plan meant to accomplish the same goals as the President’s Climate Compact, but in a more efficient manner.

Matthews and Fischbeck restructured the chronology of the compact, the main difference being that they ask universities to make the carbon-neutral pledge only after extensive investigative research and future planning.

This way, universities will not commit to an unrealistic goal before committing fully to a strict pledge. This more flexible process allows universities to work at their own pace while still taking the necessary steps to become carbon-neutral.

While the PCC addresses the larger issues of global warming, officials addressed the role of university students in increasing sustainability on campus. Austin Redwood, president of Sustainable Earth, was quoted last month in The Tartan noting that “simple, easy things can make a huge impact. Our role as students is to do our part because there is still room for improvement.... Start a recycle-a-thon. Turn off the lights.”

Students asked to respond to this advice seemed intrigued about how small changes in their lifestyles could collectively decrease the size of Carnegie Mellon’s carbon footprint.

Sophomore business major Josh Weiner and sophomore chemical engineering major Briana Wallace both agreed that they would be more than happy to try some of Redwood’s simple suggestions.

Weiner mentioned that he makes a point to turn off his lights in his room: “When I’m going to class or whatever, it’s something I just trained myself to do because I know it’s right.” Wallace said that she often forgot to use the recycling bins located around campus, but “it’s good that they’re there; when I do remember, I feel good about making a difference, even though it’s a small one.”

In its Nov./Dec. 2007 issue, the Sierra Club Magazine named Carnegie Mellon one of the “Top 10 Schools That Get It,” praising our campus for its green roofs and the country’s first LEED- certified residence hall.

Of the 10 schools that made the Sierra Club list, Carnegie Mellon, Tufts University, Harvard College, and Pennsylvania State University have yet to sign the PCC, while six of the top 10, including Oberlin College, Duke University, and Middlebury College, have all committed.

If Cohon continues to leave the President’s Climate Compact unsigned, he can be confident the Carnegie Mellon community has already proved it may be the best possible place to come up with an alternative.