U of C among city’s worst polluters, EPA says

Recent findings from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show that universities are among the worst contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in Chicago.

By Joy Crane

[img id=”92354″ align=”left”/] Recent findings from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show that universities are among the worst contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in Chicago. The report comes at a time when the University of Chicago’s Office of Sustainability is intensifying energy-saving efforts to address long-standing environmental issues on campus.

The 2010 findings, published in a recent article by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, indicate that Scope 1 emissions—those directly caused by activities such as the burning of fuel—were higher at universities like the U of C and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) than those from O’Hare International Airport, any of the city’s landfills, and the Finkl and Sons’s steel plant.

“That comparison didn’t make sense to me; you’re comparing apples to oranges,” said Ilsa Flanagan, Director of the Office of Sustainability, referring to the Medill report. “If you look at the way we’re doing business, it’s so completely different. We have 200 acres, 200 buildings, and 50,000 people.”

However, closer comparisons don’t depict a rosier situation for the University. The U of C is still the largest emitter of greenhouse gases of all Chicago universities when taking into account emissions indirectly caused by the University, such as electrical and heat consumption, known as Scope 2 emissions. Scope 3 emissions include pollution generated by commuter traffic.

Environmentalist Ignacio Tagtachian (A.B. ’11), co-author of the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Inventory, which the University has published since April 2010, says that the U of C still emits more greenhouse gases per square foot even compared to other research institutions like Northwestern and Stanford University.

Part of the problem, he explained, is Chicago’s cold climate and the high energy cost of doing research.

“We do use more than UIC does, but we have more labs. Not all buildings are made equal,” said Tagtachian. “So let’s say we compare our inventory to Stanford’s: They have essentially perfect weather, so of course their heating and cooling costs are much lower than ours. This isn’t meant to be an excuse so much as it is to say that no matter what we do we’ll never be [them]. We don’t have the conditions that a university like Stanford does, so we do the best we can.”

The main energy expenditure on campus comes from buildings, as electricity accounted for 49 percent and heating for 26 percent of emissions in FY2009. Total CO2 emissions on campus increased marginally from FY2008 to 2009, while CO2 from purchased electricity (a Scope 2 source of emissions not included in the EPA study) increased by about 25,000 metric tons, according to the University’s GHG Inventory published this week. The increase reflects a gradual but annual trend since 2006.

Ongoing construction projects explain much of the growth in consumption.

“You have to take into account the fact that we’re growing. So if you cut it by square feet, it’s one issue; to account for construction, it’s a whole different issue,” Tagtachian said. “It’s also difficult because all of the new buildings going up are under construction, where buildings are using a lot of power mainly because they’re not closed up. But also you can’t have people working in subzero conditions.”

In spite of these figures, the Office of Sustainability has recently championed several major initiatives to reduce university emissions, with help from a $2.5 million grant from Jim and Paula Crown in 2009. The three-year-old office has just completed energy upgrades in four buildings—Pick Hall, Stuart Hall, Social Sciences Research Building, and Henry Crown Field House—and 16 others are currently being retrofitted.

“I think any step forward is a good step, and clearly the Office of Sustainability, with the grant they just got…is taking that step,” said second-year Grace Pai, Assistant Director of UCAN, a climate action RSO. “The retrofits that they’re doing to the older buildings are really important, because so many of our buildings are old, but we also want to preserve the history of these buildings.”

In addition to the retrofitting of older buildings, all new campus and medical center buildings costing over $5 million must now be LEED-certified, according to the Sustainability Building Policy that the University approved in December 2010. The LEED certification aims to improve building performance across a number of different environmental benchmarks, such as energy efficiency and waste reduction.

“There are certainly buildings that were upgraded and are using less power,” Tagtachian said. “But also it’s difficult for us, just having over 16 million gross square feet, to say we’re going to choose a program and use it across all of campus, as that would cost more money. It would be expensive, so you would normally go a group of buildings at a time.”

The main obstacles to reducing emissions are time and money, according to Flanagan.

“There is a finite amount of resources. You can’t go in and retrofit every building over the next three years; it’s going to take time. Time and resources are the biggest challenges to getting some quick returns.”

Tagtachian also identified that university bureaucracy can sometimes slow down the process.

“We’re also a part of Facilities, which is in some sense an advantage and in some sense a disadvantage. It’s an advantage because every time a decision is made, we’re there. It’s a disadvantage because you have constraints, a lot of them being financial. It’s what it is.”

No formal goals have been set by the University to curb emissions, although a broad plan including emissions reductions will be published by the end of the year. This plan will involve the GHG Inventory and coordination with the independent Sustainability Council.

“The strategic plan is going to be up on our website within the next month or two. I think having that with the inventory, with this climate plan, really put some policies, guidelines, and vision in place for the department. Otherwise you could just spend a lot of time reacting to people’s interests in things,” Flanagan said.

“The Office of Sustainability is going about it in a very UChicago way,” Pai said. “That is probably the most effective way: really working with the University community.”

When asked whether the University was doing enough to reduce its carbon footprint, Flanagan said that it is too early to tell.

“I think that, as we’re putting these plans in place right now, that would be a good question in a year or two from now. By then we’ll really start to ramp up and address any kind of aggressive goals we put into place.”