Mary Sue Coleman: Sustainability at University of Michigan must be 'meaningful and measurable'
Four years ago hundreds of college presidents signed a letter promising their institutions would become carbon neutral in a matter of decades.
Angela Cesere | AnnArbor.com
Instead U-M took its time and developed its own set of sustainability goals, which it released on Sept. 27, 2011. Coleman spoke about U-M's progress during a sustainability event on Tuesday evening at the Michigan Union.
The 2007 letter had been a bold move, with the leaders of top-tier schools like Cornell University, the University of California's Los Angeles and Berkley campuses and the University of Maryland committing to drastically reduce their emissions by 2050 and make their progress _or lack of it_ publicly visible.
But at the time, U-M was considering purchasing the North Campus Research Complex and the health system was growing rapidly, with the $754 million C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and Von Voigtlander Women's Hospital under construction. Coleman says she wasn't convinced such a commitment was realistic.
"Presidents around the country were signing this climate letter, they were going to make their campuses carbon neutral by 2050," Coleman recalled Tuesday evening. "I thought that would be very easy for me to sign, that I am going to [sign] it and leave it to the next person."
[But] I'll never put us in the position where somebody in the future says 'Well, why the heck did she do that?'"
Last year Coleman announced a $14 million sustainability initiative that set a series of goals tailored to U-M, including reducing carbon emissions 25 percent by 2025.
The reduction goal was more modest the the commitments from Cornell and other schools, yet still a challenge for an institution with 34 million square feet of building infrastructure and roughly 43,000 students.
From 2004 to 2011, greenhouse gas emissions at U-M had increased 28 percent.
U-M also created a minor in sustainability and promised to reduce the amount of chemicals it uses on its 13 million square feet of turf by 40 percent by 2025. Coleman vowed to increase the amount of campus food sustainably sourced by 20 percent, make all campus buses hybrids by 2025 and install solar panels on North Campus. The commitment followed a 2010 promise that new construction over $10 million would be built LEED certified, a measure that enforces sustainability and energy efficiency in construction.
"It has to be meaningful to me and it has to be measurable... I have to be honest with people about what we can and cannot do," Coleman said. "I think some campuses and presidents are sort of (regretting) the day that they made a commitment without knowing how to get there."
Coleman highlighted Mott, which opened in December 2011 and was built to meet LEED requirements, adding a 15 percent premium to the initial cost of construction.
"When you've got a $754 million facility, a 15 percent premium is a lot of money," she said, though she acknowledged that U-M would recoup its money (an estimated $155 million) through energy savings over time.
Since launching the sustainability initiative a year ago, U-M has introduced 7 hybrid buses, which cost $518,345 each, begun negotiating with local food vendors and replaced select lighting and windows with energy efficient alternatives, among other things.
Throughout the year the university installed blue recycling stations around campus in an effort to reduce waste by 40 percent in 2035. Waste in 2011 equalled 17,000 tons, a significant increase from the 13,800 tons of trash the Ann Arbor campus generated in 2004.
The cans, first introduced in September 2011, were installed years after U-M originally got rid of recycling bins because students filled them with trash, contaminating the contents and making them impossible to recycle.
"One of the things that I didn't anticipate was how important human behavior would be (in becoming sustainable), that people would just thwart all of our efforts," Coleman said. "That wasn't the way they always behaved."
Since then, environmental awareness has increased and people have become more educated about recycling and more willing to sort their trash.
Coleman said Tuesday that becoming a grandparent has elevated the importance of sustainability in her mind.
"It certainly makes you think more about the future and what sort of life you want for your grandchildren, what sort of world you want them to live in."