Jumbo’s Green Side: Sustainability at Tufts University

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | February 13, 2017 | Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy

In this blog series, SACE staff evaluate college and university campuses investing in clean energy and sustainable practices. To read other posts in the series, go here.

Ivy-covered walls and tree-lined campuses are pretty much de rigueur at New England’s countless colleges and universities, so it takes more than landscaping to earn a ‘Green College’ label.  Half a century of environmental leadership coupled with ongoing efforts to green campus operations – from energy usage and infrastructure to food sourcing and academic offerings – have earned my undergraduate alma mater, Tufts University, a silver rating from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) and a green college ranking from the Princeton Review.  Here’s just a few ways Jumbos are striving towards sustainability (and a few more where there’s room for improvement).

[Wondering about “Jumbo” and that elephant statue? An early trustee of Tufts, P.T. Barnum of circus fame, donated both money and the taxidermied remains of the 19th century’s most famous pachyderm, hence a famous elephant is our mascot. True story, look it up!]

(1) Bold Leadership on Climate: In 1999, Tufts University committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the Kyoto Protocol (7 percent reductions below 1990 levels) and the Tufts Climate Initiative was formed to help the university reach these goals. In May 2001, Tufts University President John DiBiaggio sent a letter to President Bush that was co-signed by 41 other university presidents, urging him to revise his energy policy to place greater emphasis on conservation and finding alternatives to fossil fuels. In 2003, Tufts joined the Chicago Climate Exchange and Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow renewed the University’s dedication to climate protection and raised the bar by adopting the goals of the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers (10% reduction by 2020). Those efforts continue today through semi-annual sustainability reports (most recent appears to be the 2015 Campus Sustainability Progress Report), which chronicle the university’s commitment to conserve and reduce. But Tufts’ climate leadership has been felt far beyond campus: faculty and students (particularly those from The Fletcher School) have provided expertise and research to guide international climate negotiations for years, most recently during and after the Paris COP in 2015.

(2) Better Buildings: Because buildings account for 65 percent of electricity consumption and 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, there are huge gains to be realized by building better, greener buildings. At Tufts, Sophia Gordon Residence Hall was the first building to receive a LEED gold certification due to a range of factors including 30 percent reduction in energy and water use, solar thermal (hot water) and photovoltaic (electricity) panels, use of recycled/renewable materials and energy efficiency measures. Recent renovations on the Boston-campus of the School of Dental Medicine earned a second gold LEED certification in 2012 and one of the newest buildings, Tufts’ Collaborative Learning and Innovation Complex (CLIC), is expected to snag a third gold LEED rating due to features like triple-glazed windows to reduce heat loss, insulation on the exterior walls and interior vents for heating in Boston’s cold winters.

(3) A Green Student Body: New Jumbos are encouraged to learn about Tufts’ sustainability efforts through tours and open houses as well as through an online and printed copy of The Green Guide, which is full of tips for students to reduce, reuse and recycle. For the truly committed, there’s opportunities to be a Tufts Eco-Rep or on a GreenTeam where students raise awareness, encourage environmentally responsible behavior and plan events like ‘RecycleMania’ and ‘Do It in the Dark’ competitions to promote waste reduction and energy conservation. A few students are accepted each year to live in the Green House, an intentional community of people who are all interested in issues surrounding sustainability, but with more than 100 sustainability-related courses in the curriculum, all students have the opportunity to formally study and learn about sustainable concepts in the classroom.

(4) Reducing Transportation’s Impacts: There’s a variety of ways that Tufts works to lower transportation’s carbon footprint from encouraging bicycle riders to providing discounts on public transit passes to partnering with Zipcar to promote ride-sharing for times when a car is needed. While only a small percentage of the shuttle service fleet is electric, hybrid, or biodiesel vehicles, the fact that the main campus is fairly small and walkable means that many students are able to take the lowest carbon route to classes, the gym, mealtime and jobs: their feet!

(5) Greening the Menu: The university has made modest gains here by sourcing some food locally and organic, serving Fair Trade coffee at some locations, and hosting a seasonal farmers’ market on campus. At the end of the food cycle, Tufts works to reduce food waste by donating leftover dining hall food to Food for Free, a Cambridge-based nonprofit that redistributes food to those in need.

Most of these actions and programs were instituted after I graduated in 1993, so I am glad to know that my alma mater is actively working to influence the next generation of leaders and thinkers to strive for sustainability.  Because sustainability is a goal, not a destination, there is always room for improvement. Here’s a few areas where Tufts is or should be striving to do more.

(1) Reducing Energy Use: Although Tufts led the charge among universities who called on President Bush to seek alternatives to fossil fuels, as of November 2015, only three campus buildings have solar photovoltaic panels and only two utilize solar thermal (i.e. hot water) systems. Therefore, Tufts’ efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are largely confined to energy efficiency measures (such as metering and control timers) and purchasing renewable energy credits. In order to realize the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 85 percent over the next three decades, Tufts needs to make bold strides in reducing carbon emissions from electricity use. A new campus energy plant should help by utilizing high-efficiency cogeneration technologies to generate heat and electricity at the same time, but installing more solar on campus rooftops can help lower the fossil fuel consumption even more.

(2) A Sustainably-Invested Endowment: To set ambitious goals for reducing carbon emissions while simultaneously investing in fossil fuel-oriented businesses and industries is contradictory at best and self-defeating at worst. According to the 2015 audit for the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), only 10 percent of Tufts’ endowment is currently invested in sustainable funds or industries and there’s been an active campus campaign to encourage divestment from fossil fuels. In 2013 a Divestment Working Group was formed but the group concluded that divestment could negatively impact Tufts’ endowment at that time, although due to a lack of transparency with regards to Tufts’ endowment (as noted in the recent STARS report) it is unclear just how much of the endowment is tied to fossil fuel investment. While Tufts did launch a Sustainability Fund in April 2015, its relatively small and has plenty of opportunity for growth. I am hopeful that Tufts will prioritize being (1) more transparent about investment strategies (which might encourage greater participation in fundraising efforts among both Gen-X graduates like myself as well as the new generation of millennial graduates) and (2) more fully vested in sustainable funds and companies to actively push growth towards sustainable outcomes.

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