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Richmond to be rated on sustainability efforts

Published: March 26, 2014, 9:02 pm ET
Collegian Reporter

The Office of Sustainability hopes to strike up more efforts to fight the risks of climate change in light of a new index that will rate University of Richmond based on steps taken to divest from fossil fuels.

Asset Owners Disclosure Project’s new Global Universities Index will rank over 300 universities in 32 countries on how much each institution is investing in fossil fuels. The AODP is a non-profit organization aiming to shift the imbalance affecting investments between high-carbon assets, at 50 to 60 percent, and low-carbon assets, at less than 2 percent.

Megan Zanella-Litke, sustainability manager, said Richmond had its focuses in several different areas. The Office of Sustainability deals with energy efficiency, energy conservation, waste and opportunities to expand the use of renewables.

“The last thing we work on is education,” Zanella-Litke said. “I work on a project called the River City project where we invite faculty to come and have a workshop.”

The workshop guides faculty members on how to address sustainability and incorporate it into the courses that they teach. The question really is about what makes sense in what they are teaching, she said.

The Office of Sustainability also works with several green initiative organizations on campus including Green UR, Eco-Rep program, and U.S. Green Building Council Students of Richmond. These organizations give students a platform to get involved with green initiatives on campus.

This year, Eco-Reps, a pilot program operating through the sustainability office, encouraged students to participate in the Campus ConseRVAtion Nationals competition as an effort to divert from fossil fuels.

Campus ConseRVAtion Nationals motivated students to reduce their energy consumption by pitting the dorms against each other and the university against Virginia Commonwealth University, Casey Schmidt, coordinator of Eco-Reps, said. The competitor who reduced their energy consumption by the largest percentage over the course of the competition won.

“While we may not be working directly to switch the university’s infrastructure, we are working to change student behavior so that there may be less of a need to use energy at all,” Schmidt said.

Caitlin Bonney, founder of the U.S. Green Building Council, said she had started Richmond’s chapter in 2011 to educate and excite fellow students about green building in general and on campus. Bonney has also worked with Green UR.

The organization hopes to get involved in the community by setting up at a local elementary school to teach children about environmental issues. “In the fall we set up a composting program there,” she said.

Green UR is currently working on other projects such as collecting batteries to be properly recycled and reducing purchase of single-use water bottles by installing refill stations in the commons.

“It is hard to say that we directly contribute to the university’s divestment from fossil fuels,” Bonney said. “But we are hopeful that we educate students and the university community about what can be done to minimize their ecological footprint.”

The Global Universities Index will assess Richmond and 73 other universities in the United States on AODP’s criteria of transparency, risk management, low carbon investment and active ownership, Paige Knappenberger, AODP’s media relations associate, wrote in an email. The ratings will be based on survey responses collected directly from universities as well as information uncovered by AODP researchers.

“Like insurance companies and pensions, universities with substantial investments in fossil fuels face risks when the value of fossil fuels falls,” Knappenberger said. “Whether due to legislative action or economic competition.”

In 2007, President Edward Ayers signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which commits the university to keep a measure of its carbon footprint and outlines a collaborative plan to reach climate neutrality.

The Climate Action Plan sets 2050 as the target year with an interim target of a 30 percent reduction by 2020. This commitment was ultimately why the Office of Sustainability was created.

“The university uses something called STARS: Sustainability Tracking Assessment Reporting System,” Zanella-Litke said. “Sort of like the new index, they don’t just look at investments, but it is incorporated.”

STARS is a tool for universities to evaluate where they are and how they are doing with sustainability efforts and it is quite comprehensive, she said. It looks at everything related to sustainability, ranging from waste to recycling. It examines energy consumption and how the university is managing its greenhouse gases.

“It also looks at how we’re doing with the people part of sustainability, in terms of HR practices and diversity initiatives,” Zanella-Litke said.

In the last STARS report submitted in February 2013, Richmond was rated silver with a score of 48.95. The STARS report is valid for three years.

Contact Collegian Reporter Sheetal Babu at sheetal.babu@richmond.edu

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