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Is SAIC Green Enough?

One class took an in-depth look at SAIC’s sustainability efforts. Here’s what they found.

By Climate, Featured, SAIC

Illustration by Cat Cao.

This article was written by Professor Kathryn Schaffer, with contributions and input from students in the Spring 2020 “SAIC Carbon Audit” class, particularly Eva Dillon-Recht, Ella Fainaru-Wada, Robert King, David Lentzner, Malcolm Mackey, Isabella Mao, and Leaf Silver.

Climate Change: A Primer

As I write this, it is Summer, 2020. In the constantly changing landscape of a global pandemic, we don’t know what Fall semester at SAIC will be like, much less future semesters. It is hard to think proactively about planning SAIC’s longer-term future. Nevertheless, I am writing to argue that we must pivot, in this moment of global crisis, to face the even larger global crisis of climate change. Now is the time to establish a vision for art-making, scholarship, school, and urban life that is sustainable and forward-thinking. I write as a faculty member in the Liberal Arts department, and as the teacher of an experimental Spring 2020 class called “The SAIC Carbon Audit.” In this class, a team of students studied the carbon footprint of the school and researched changes the school could make that would have the greatest impact. This article shares some of our findings.

It’s 2020, and if I still need to try to convince you that climate change is real and that it’s caused by humans, then let me refer you to one of the school’s excellent classes on the subject, like those taught by climate scientist Mika Tosca. To briefly summarize the established science, the earth is warming due to heat-trapping “greenhouse gases,” or GHGs. The most important of these is carbon dioxide, which is released when we burn fuel to power vehicles, generate electricity, heat buildings, or cook food. Other GHGs are also released in agricultural, industrial, and waste-management processes. To keep the vocabulary simple, these other GHGs are discussed in terms of an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide that would have the same environmental effect. 

Most people are familiar with the concept of a “carbon footprint,” (which really should be called a GHG footprint), which is an estimate of the amount of carbon dioxide, or equivalent, that is emitted in order to make, use, or dispose of a product, or to conduct an activity. Everything we do has an associated carbon footprint. Use electricity? Most of it was generated by burning fossil fuels, with vast amounts of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere as a byproduct. Buy something? Fossil fuels were burned to make it and transport it, and will be burned again to transport it to a landfill later. Eat anything lately? Walk on a sidewalk? Use a phone? All of these activities translate to greenhouse gas emissions in some way. 

A typical American adult is responsible for some 15-25 metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution added to the atmosphere every year. To avoid the worst flooding, hurricanes, forest fires, droughts, mass extinctions, mass migrations, food shortages, additional pandemics, and social upheaval that global warming will cause, that number needs to be drastically reduced, down to a per-capita footprint closer to 3 metric tons per year. Don’t let your eyes just gloss over the numbers here — this is a big deal. And don’t take my word for it. Go read the reports issued by the United Nations’ climate experts, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Those reports indicate that this decade is the critical last chance to act. We all urgently (like, yesterday) need to figure out how to reduce our emissions by very large percentages.

Because climate change is a complex issue tied up with big questions about government, capitalism, identity, power, ethics, justice, and inequality, it can feel overwhelming, almost to the point of being paralyzing. The stance I took in my class is that we don’t have to know everything, resolve every academic debate, or agree on every nuance to take constructive action. SAIC is not doing enough yet (almost nobody is), and we don’t need perfect solutions in order to make valuable progress.

Evaluating SAIC’s Green Initiatives

For some years (since an initial pledge made by past SAIC president Walter Massey in 2009) SAIC has participated in a voluntary carbon-footprint reduction initiative called Second Nature. As a part of this commitment, the institution performs annual assessments of the greenhouse gas emissions of its activities (essentially, a school-wide carbon footprint calculation). Those calculations are publicly available, and show that the estimated carbon footprint of the school has hovered between 15,000 – 20,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (or equivalent) per year. 

The public data shows a big apparent drop-off in the carbon footprint as of this year, which corresponds to the announcement made in January of 2020 that SAIC had become officially “carbon neutral.” To make sense of the carbon neutrality claim, we should first note that it does not mean that SAIC has no greenhouse gas emissions. It is impossible for any human to live (or for an institution to exist and function) without some greenhouse gas emissions, even just based on biology: Breathing produces carbon dioxide (in insignificant amounts for climate change, but still). More importantly, food, energy, transportation, and waste systems all involve carbon emissions, often in ways that are beyond our individual, or even institutional, control. SAIC does not have the space to put up solar panel arrays, grow all of its own food, or do other large-scale projects that could take us close to zero emissions. So the carbon neutrality claim is not because we have reduced our emissions drastically, but because we have participated in a trade system that aims to compensate for them.

Generally, “carbon neutral” is a phrase that people use when an institution or corporation finds a way to reduce carbon emissions (or sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) elsewhere to compensate for the emissions it produces. What we are really talking about is an accounting and financial exchange process. Some financial products exist in the current economic system for this purpose. What they really are, essentially, are regulated certificates that promise that someone, somewhere, is either reducing or preventing carbon emissions. Such certificates are sold to institutions like SAIC, and priced such that you can purchase the reduction or prevention of a quantity of carbon emissions equivalent to what your institution unavoidably creates, essentially “offsetting” your carbon footprint. Technically, not all of these financial products are called carbon offsets (in fact, the main type that the school purchases is called Renewable Energy Credits, or RECs), but the upshot is that they function as a way to offset our unavoidable emissions by subsidizing or financing environmentally responsible activities somewhere else. 

If this sounds sketchy, there are ways that it is, and unavoidably so. First of all, as our class discussed extensively, the concept of a “carbon footprint” is intrinsically fuzzy. How do you define the carbon footprint of, for example, a piece of paper? Maybe it’s obvious that we should account for the loss of the tree (trees sequester carbon), the electricity used to make the paper, and the transportation to get the paper to us. Should we also include the carbon footprint associated with making the equipment used to make the paper? What about making the food and clothes for the people who make the paper? And so on. In class, we referred often to the problems intrinsic to the “fractal nature of stuff,” a phrase coined by Rich Gold, in his book “The Plenitude” (MIT Press, 2007) to describe the way that each material artifact implies more material artifacts, in an ever-expanding chain that has no obvious end.

Every carbon footprint calculation therefore requires making some — often arbitrary — decisions about what to count. Some factors are straightforward to estimate, like how much carbon dioxide is emitted to supply the electricity we use (because data is supplied by power companies). Some are less straightforward, like an art material that we use, which has both an “upstream” carbon footprint involved in making and transporting it to Chicago, and a “downstream” carbon footprint in waste disposal. Even if we come up with a reasonable plan for what to count, doing the count is not easy. Since there is no magic carbon-o-meter anyone can use to measure emissions directly, even expert assessments involve guesswork. Intrinsic to the entire system of carbon accounting is that we can’t know for sure how large our emissions are, nor can any regulatory body determine conclusively that activities we finance elsewhere genuinely offset those emissions.

Using terms like “carbon neutrality” or “carbon zero” to refer to a trading system, particularly a trading system with this level of intrinsic uncertainty, bothers some people. Some students responded skeptically to the school’s “carbon-neutral” claim, characterizing it as buying our way out of irresponsible behavior. Moreover, a constant theme in our discussions was distrust surrounding the messaging that students were receiving, which sounded to some like “greenwashing” — perceived hypocrisy in an institution that claims carbon neutrality while also having visibly poor environmental responsibility in other ways. Recycling is one highly visible area where we clearly have a lot of room for improvement, and many students cited this as a reason they are suspicious of any claims that SAIC is “green.” 

Despite these threads of distrust in our ongoing discussion, one thing that we discovered through this class is that behind the scenes, the Instructional Resources and Facilities Management team (IRFM) has done some pretty awesome stuff, like upgrading building ventilation systems and replacing lighting. Their sustainability work is often invisible to students, but it has made measurable and significant improvements in the carbon footprint of the school in the last couple of years. We got great responses when we reached out to staff across a number of offices on campus, but IRFM staff especially. Sustainability Manager David Vasquez was particularly generous, visiting class, answering email questions, and brainstorming along with us about how SAIC can make improvements. 

Cross-checking the carbon footprint estimates published on Second Nature, what we learned is that by far, the electricity and energy usages of SAIC’s buildings are the largest contributors to the footprint of on-campus activities. This is the part of the footprint that IRFM has focused on addressing through energy upgrades. Given that there are limits to how efficient old urban buildings can be, the school’s approach of improve-what-you-can and offset-what-you-can’t seems practical.  

The frank conversations in our class showed how productive it can be to bring together staff, students, and faculty for collective brainstorming, suggesting that the next substantive step for the school might be to form a joint committee with student, staff, and faculty representation to make sustainability central to the school’s post-pandemic future. Sadly, the Sustainability Manager position was eliminated on July 1st in a wave of Summer 2020 staff layoffs, so David Vasquez will not be available to help us to follow through on the many ideas that we collectively developed. I personally wonder if the commitment to purchasing RECs and maintaining carbon neutrality (even in an imperfect form) has also been compromised, but the information is not yet public to determine if that is the case. I would call on all concerned students, staff, and faculty to watch closely to see if SAIC renews its commitment to carbon-neutral education.

Areas for Improvement

Looking at SAIC’s carbon footprint from 2019, we discovered many aspects of the school’s emissions profile that either are not officially assessed by the school (yet), or that have an off-campus component that may not be entirely under SAIC’s control. These represent areas where we might be able to make significant improvements.  

Individual students in my class chose to research different missing pieces of the puzzle, and some students found results that were a bit surprising. For example, student Robert King (BFA 2022) found that carbon emissions connected to commuting back and forth from school are fairly inconsequential. If students can walk, bike or skate from their residence to school, that is best, but bus and light rail systems in Chicago have undergone changes in fuel usage and energy efficiency making them also fine choices for commuting. Commuter rail systems and cars are more problematic, but these forms of transportation are usually only used by students and faculty who have no other choice. So, it is difficult to see ways that the carbon footprint of daily commuting could be greatly improved (although the current work-from-home situation does raise questions about whether the need for commuting in any form could ultimately be reduced in the future). 

Likewise, student Malcolm Mackey (BFA 2021) looked into the science behind the popular trend to “go paperless” and found that paper has a comparatively low carbon footprint relative to many other things that we regularly consume. Malcolm’s research also revealed hugely divergent claims about the environmental sustainability of paper, clearly influenced by the competing economic interests of paper and print industries vs. tech alternatives. The intrinsic uncertainty of carbon footprint estimates unfortunately makes it easy to manipulate them for nearly any agenda. 

Avoiding paper and riding a bike to school might still be good things to do, but they won’t make a big impact on SAIC’s carbon footprint overall. On the other hand, though, my students found some alarmingly large contributions to the overall footprint that were outside the official assessments. For example, while the school accounts for the carbon footprint of direct school-financed air travel, it does not estimate the carbon footprint associated with air travel by domestic and international students traveling to and from Chicago each semester. Student Isabella Mao (BFA 2020) performed calculations suggesting that student air travel could easily add thousands, or even tens of thousands, of metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, making it a significant contribution to the overall carbon footprint associated with the school’s activities. We did not assess faculty travel, but since international conferences and art events are (or were, in the pre-pandemic world) a major part of faculty activities, faculty travel is another area to target for serious carbon footprint reductions. As a first step towards improvements, SAIC could focus on de-incentivizing any travel that isn’t strictly necessary. For example, we could survey international students to figure out if different approaches to holiday breaks or summer/winter terms could reduce the need for trips home, or consider modifying the faculty promotion process to place less weight on in-person participation in international events. 

Food choices (and waste) emerged as another part of the carbon footprint of our activities that is not currently assessed, but likely to be significant. Several students researched the “upstream” carbon footprints associated with food choices, and found that because of the current mass-production methods in place, a single food, beef, rises far above others in its carbon footprint. Students suggested a number of ways that the food-related component of our school’s footprint could be improved simply through reducing beef consumption, including having cafes adopt “meatless Mondays,” taking beef off the menu for all school-financed catering, offering smaller portion sizes to reduce waste, tagging menus with carbon footprint data, and setting up games, contests, or pricing systems that would incentivize lower-footprint eating habits. Food waste was also something we discussed at length, but a lack of available data on the waste produced by the school limited our ability to draw conclusions about its impact.

A number of students researched the carbon footprint of common art materials. The biggest conclusion from that effort is that it remains quite difficult to find reliable information about the upstream and downstream impacts of art supplies, specifically the ones used on campus. A concerted effort by institutions like the school itself could be valuable in changing this situation, through demanding carbon footprint information from our material suppliers. Students suggested that this information could be integrated into classroom discussions, or perhaps even into standardized curriculum components like a sustainability-focused assignment in the first-year studio program.

Education for the Future

The upshot is that SAIC, as it reconfigures for the future, needs a top-to-bottom sustainability overhaul, not just to offset carbon emissions but to find ways to genuinely reduce them, and to educate students who will go forward as carbon-conscious makers and citizens. Sustainability messaging from the school needs to change so that we can come together as a community instead of letting distrust undermine our good intentions. Recycling and waste needs more transparency and perhaps a complete rethink. The visual environment on campus needs to cue a carbon-aware culture. The discussion over the school’s financial investments in fossil fuel companies needs to be reopened. Sustainability needs an even greater infusion into the curriculum across all departments. Students, faculty, and staff need to be collaborating more cohesively on building a low-carbon culture.  

Our students are the members of the SAIC community with the most at stake in the future of the planet we share. For students, and for all of us, the school has a responsibility to make sustainability and climate change central in the post-pandemic rebuilding of the school. Students are the ones with the most power to demand that SAIC rise to this challenge. I thank the many student activists who have already raised their voices, and I encourage others to demand a more sustainable approach to education. 

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