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Divestment, Part 3: So You Think You’re Carbon Neutral?

SAIC will be carbon neutral by 2020. What does that mean?

By Climate, Featured, SAIC

Illustration by Ishita Dharap.

This is Part 3 of F Newsmagazine’s Divestment Series, a series of articles on fossil fuels, finances, and the AIC endowment. Start reading here.

This fall, an email from School of the Art Institute (SAIC) President Elissa Tenny notified us that our school is poised to become “Carbon Neutral in 2020!” Per the email, SAIC will achieve “carbon neutrality through continued operational changes and future offsets.” What are those changes? What’s an offset? And, most importantly, is it enough?

Pursuit of Neutrality

In 2008, before Tenny’s tenure or the existence of the Sustainability Manager’s position, SAIC signed on to the Second Nature Carbon Commitment. This commitment is an institutional promise to make a plan to reduce carbon emissions, and then stick to that plan. (The commitment does not specify any particular amount by which colleges should reduce.) The commitment is for universities and colleges; the Art Institute itself has signed no such agreement. 

A carbon audit followed, performed by SAIC’s Instructional Resources and Facilities Management (IRFM) in 2009. See the results on the graph below. SAIC’s carbon footprint consists of 81.4% energy (natural gas, electricity, diesel and gasoline from our two campus cars). Next highest is directly financed air travel for staff and faculty, at 5.3%. 

SAIC’s carbon footprint, 2018-2019. Graph courtesy of the SAIC Sustainability Manager’s office.

Since 2009, campus energy emissions have lowered by 18%, mostly thanks to efforts by IRFM and Vice President for Facilities & Campus Operations Thomas Buechele. These changes center on how campus buildings are run: Energy management and building automation systems have been installed, to manage efficiency and to monitor energy usage in real time, respectively. 

SAIC Sustainability Manager David Vasquez explained these changes in a presentation on Nov. 5 to the students in Professor Kathryn Schaffer’s Knowing Nature course. The HVAC has also been updated in most buildings, and building lightbulbs have been replaced with LEDs, which are on sensor timers. The kilns in Columbus, a huge energy draw, were upgraded to more energy-efficient models. 

In terms of on-campus energy use, said Vasquez in the presentation, this is the most we can do. For example, Schaffer confirmed, we cannot install solar panels on our roofs and run our buildings on our own clean energy. When asked whether this had been considered, Vasquez told F News via email that it had, but “because of our location, sun exposure and limited space it is not an effective way to generate electricity.”

The cafeterias are another area of focus for the Sustainability Office. Vasquez has focused efforts on getting rid of plastic waste. Unfortunately, he said, they can’t control what outside vendors do. “We have started engaging them on what options we have to achieve our goal,” he told F via email. “Ideally, we would switch out any plastic bottles with glass or aluminum, and utensils, plates, to-go boxes with compostable alternatives and we would add composting bins in the cafeteria.”

Compost bins have proven difficult to enforce, because students disregard the labeling and throw regular garbage into it. Changing the way students think, says Vasquez, is challenging. 

But to some students, these issues are critical. The in-class presentation by Vasquez was met with healthy skepticism and a lively discussion. One student asked, “Is there something we can do to support things that haven’t started changing yet?” Another student suggested incorporating environmentalism into the core curriculum. But they also expressed concern that it could imbue the students with a too-individualistic perspective. 

Offsets’ Impact

“We can only reduce our building energy so much,” said Vasquez, in another presentation, in Sharp on Nov. 21. “Once we get there — and I’m not saying we’re there yet — we should pay for offsets to help.”

So what are offsets? In a carbon offset program, a company or institution sponsors renewable energy efforts, or other environmental projects, to counterbalance the emissions they generate themselves. For example, a museum that burns oil to heat its vast halls in the cold winter months could invest money in a new wind farm in the prairies. It doesn’t undo their carbon emissions, but it puts in help elsewhere.

Graph courtesy of the Sustainability Manager’s Office. Note that offsets are being taken into account in this graph.

Starting in 2020, SAIC plans to invest in offsets equivalent to our continued footprint. As of the Nov. 21 presentation, the administration has not yet decided what type of offsets they will be buying. It could be in the form of solar panels, wind farms, or even carbon capture — a controversial procedure

Offsets in general have generated controversy. Some view investing in offsets as nothing more than the purchase of a clean conscience. Purchasing offsets isn’t the best solution to reach zero, Vasquez agrees, because “Offsets don’t create the kind of culture we’re trying to create.” It doesn’t represent a change in institutional behavior, or even individual behavior. 

Schaffer agrees too, but the important thing, she says, is to do something. 

“We’re beyond the point where we can expect everything to be perfect. We have to move. We have to move in every possible direction that we can move. Acknowledging that offsets are imperfect … We have to do it. Because it’s what we can do that’s available, that we can do now.” 

Schaffer, who oversees the science department at SAIC, will run a new class next semester: The SAIC Carbon Audit (SCIENCE 3260). The students in this class will perform their own independent carbon audit of our campus. “Students will work in teams to perform their own estimates of the carbon emissions associated with SAIC buildings, utilities use, transportation, instruction, food services, etc,” reads the course description

“I feel like my life was changed by becoming hooked on the TV series ‘How It’s Made,’” said Schaffer. Seeing the industrial processes first-hand opened her eyes to the reality of modern manufacturing. “The endlessness of the chain of materials becomes immediately apparent.” When you buy one piece of clothing, you ask: Where did the cloth come from? The thread? The machine to sew the thread? The metal to build that machine? The machine to melt the metal? 

“It’s exactly that kind of ambiguity is what’s important to emphasize in SAIC science classes. Real-world problem solving has to wrestle with ambiguity.” The idea for the class, she says, crystallized the morning after the 2016 presidential election. 

In their carbon audit, they will examine less commonly surveyed areas, like waste and purchasing. Students will decide on the scope of their projects. The final goal of the class is to produce some kind of output that could be shared with the whole school. 

“If we were going to make two or three achievable changes, what would they be?” Schaffer asks. “The answers for infrastructure are really well-defined. But what about behavior? Culture? Food? Habits?”  

But in the meantime, “The perfect solution isn’t here. Something that is here is offsets.”

More to Come

Offsets and building efficiency are not the end of the Sustainability Office’s plans. Efforts to reduce waste in the cafeterias continue, as do efforts to reduce waste in art-making materials. The school is also planning to enter a Purchase Power Agreement. This program is similar to offsets, but longer-term: Instead of incentivizing existing companies to offset or capture their carbon, SAIC would finance a new program to build a solar farm, wind farm, or other renewable resource from the ground up. 

Other sustainability efforts are more abstract. How can our art be more environmentally conscious, Vasquez and Schaffer both ask, in both process and content? What about the manufacturing and shipping of materials? The waste generated by unwanted projects? 

The Sustainability Office is working with Dean of Undergraduate Studies to build these questions into the curriculum. As of now, Vasquez is the only full-time sustainability employee, but he said he would love for that to change. He emphasized that the more students demand green changes, the more power there is behind the movement.

Editor’s note: This article was updated January 31st to correct the Sustainability Manager’s title, which was originally printed as Sustainability Coordinator. 

Leo Smith (BFA 2021) is a Managing Editor and former English student. Their vinyl collection consists of one (1) Tchaikovsky piano concerto.
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