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Colleges take the lead in addressing climate change

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(From left) Portland State University President Wim Wiewel, Second Nature President Anthony Cortese and University of California Riverside Chancellor Timothy White.

Institutions of higher education are well-suited to take on a leadership role in addressing climate change by promoting policies to minimize carbon emissions that contribute to global warming and by integrating sustainability into the curriculum.

That’s the goal of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).

At a June 21 briefing at American University in Washington, D.C., before ACUPCC's 2012 Climate Leadership Summit, several college presidents talked about why higher education should lead the effort to address climate change and how the federal government can help.

Federal policy
 
A report by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), ACUPCC and Second Nature, an advocacy organization that managed the Climate Summit, identifies five federal policy options for helping colleges and universities address climate change.

Higher Education: Leading the Nation to a Safe and Secure Energy Future offers these recommendations for federal action to help colleges reduce energy consumption, increase efficiencies, avoid risks and improve their long-term financial sustainability:

• Allow colleges and universities to use tax-exempt and revenue bond financing to pre-pay power purchase agreements.
• Develop new energy efficiency and renewable energy loan options open to institutions of higher education, including establishing a federal loan guarantee program and developing a federal revolving loan fund for energy efficiency initiatives.
• Establish, alter and fund federal grant programs, including Section 471 of the Energy Independent and Security Act. That law, enacted in 2007, was never funded.
• Allow long-term charitable deductions and tax credits for biomass and bio-methane contributions.
• Extend eligibility of Clean and Renewable Energy bonds.

These policies are needed because, as state entities or nonprofits, institutions of higher education are locked out of many federal programs that support energy conservation, said Liz Clark, NACUBO’s director of congressional relations.

Several college leaders at the briefing acknowledged that, with the current focus on cutting the budget deficit, it’s a bad time to be asking for money. “Focusing on policy change would be more effective,” said American University President Neil Kerwin.

“It’s extremely important for colleges to take the lead role in climate issues,” said Rose Johnson, president of Haywood Community College (HCC) in North Carolina and one of 19 community college leaders who participated in the summit.

HCC has taken a number of steps to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions and increase the amount of green space on campus, Johnson said. The college has retrofitted its facilities, implemented a major recycling initiative, installed low-energy lighting, offers classes on solar energy and sustainability and is building a 7,000-square foot light, highly sustainable building for teaching industrial courses.

In recognition of all these efforts, HCC was awarded a Climate Leadership Award in May from ACUPCC and Second Nature.

Johnson suggests framing the issue in economic terms. Providing incentives to colleges to promote sustainability education spurs business development, which leads to more job creation and economic growth, she said.

Colleges' unique role

Colleges and universities are well suited to lead on climate change because of several factors, Second Nature President Anthony Cortese explained at the briefing: They think long-term and do a lot of research, they have a large presence in their communities,  and they not only educate the next generation, but also train K-12 teachers. “If higher education is to lead, we could affect the entire nation,” he said.

Cortese said the issue of climate change is tied “to the relevance of our educational mission.” Noting that the discussions about higher education today are all about affordability and colleges’ roles in educating people for jobs, he said, “The investments we’re talking about here will drive down costs and increase affordability and access.”

While many colleges have implemented limited energy efficiency measures, more ambitious longer-term projects that can cut energy costs by 50 percent or more carry a longer-term payback—often more than 20 years—making them difficult for colleges to pursue, especially as they struggle with tight budgets.  

“No business can commit to something with a 20- to 25-year payoff but universities rarely go out of business,” said Portland State University President Wim Wiewel, although “it’s hard to justify using our limited bond capacity for something like this.”

“When push comes to shove, we have to accommodate our students,” noted Timothy White, chancellor of the University of California Riverside. When colleges are struggling with deferred maintenance, “things with a long payoff get pushed to the margins.”

Alfred State College has a $12-million capital program to develop a geothermal system that could reduce energy costs by 30 percent a year, but because state funding decisions are so political, it’s been a challenge to get it funded, said President John Anderson.

Students today are more engaged in climate change and sustainability and are demanding colleges be leaders in these areas, added Kerwin. “It’s not just an environmental issue. It’s about how we’re going to ensure people have a decent quality of life,” he said.

And, according to White, “If higher education doesn’t take a stand on the integrity—the moral issues—of dealing with climate change, no one else will.
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