Posts Tagged ‘Cornell University’

By Peter Bardaglio, Senior Fellow, Second Nature

Welcome to the April 2011 issue of the TCCPI Newsletter, a monthly update from the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI).

TCCPI is a multisector collaboration seeking to leverage the climate action commitments made by Cornell University, Ithaca College, Tompkins Cortland Community College, Tompkins County, and the City of Ithaca to mobilize a countywide energy efficiency effort and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. Launched in June 2008 and generously supported by the Park Foundation, TCCPI is a project of Second Nature, the lead supporting organization of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).

We are committed to helping Tompkins County achieve a dynamic economy, healthy environment, and resilient community through a focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Tompkins County and EVI Awarded Major EPA Climate Grant

EcoVillage at Ithaca on a sunny day!

Tompkins County, in a unique partnership with EcoVillage at Ithaca’s Center for Sustainability Education, has been awarded a $375,450 Climate Showcase Communities grantfrom the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fund innovative approaches to creating dense neighborhoods that enhance residents quality of life while using fewer resources.

The project will focus on three different experiments in sustainable development, including construction of a third neighborhood at EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI), an internationally recognized cohousing community in Ithaca, and study of 26 acres of county-owned land as a potential location for a village-scale residential community that draws on the lessons of EVI.

The third project involves the Aurora Dwelling Circle, an urban infill development at the corner of North Aurora and Marshall streets in Ithaca. Builder Susan Cosentini and architect/planner Rob Morache run New Earth Living, the organization that will oversee the construction of the Aurora Dwelling Circle.

“I’m thrilled,” said EVI-CSE Executive Director Liz Walker. “This will give us the ability to translate proven concepts of sustainable community development to a mainstream audience. We hope to reach developers, architects, planners and builders.”


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By Jennifer Andrews, Director of Program Planning and Integration, Clean Air-Cool Planet
(This article appears in the February, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

The ACUPCCOne of the questions that CA-CP still gets quite often as we support schools in their GHG inventories and climate action plans is, “What about our forests?  Can’t we count them as offsets, since they are sequestering carbon?”  You can read the initial response to that question in this article, previously printed in the Implementer.  We have since worked with Chatham University (Pittsburgh, PA) and the US Forest Service to explore in more detail the role campus forest or other green space might play in the journey toward carbon neutrality.

The results of that collaboration can be downloaded from CA-CP’s webinar archives.  They include a sample Campus Tree Policy, as well as a great deal of useful information on how to use the Forest Service’s online “I-Tree” tool to accurately assess the ecosystem benefits provided by the forest, including carbon sequestration and fossil fuel avoidance through the shading of buildings.  So far, though, our work with these partners has only scratched the service of the broader question of how campus lands might actually offset the institutional carbon footprint.  Indeed, there has been relatively little work in this arena overall.

One reason, of course, is that most ACUPCC signatories have been—appropriately—focused first on mechanisms for reducing or avoiding their actual campus emissions, and simply haven’t yet gotten to the question of how they will offset the emissions they can’t reduce, except in the broadest of terms.  (For example, many schools have gotten so far as to express a preference in their climate action plans for helping create new, local offset projects rather than purchasing offsets off the open voluntary market—a preference which would of course make projects involving campus land a subject of interest.)

The second reason is that the land-based projects or practices so far identified as having the highest potential to serve as viable carbon offsets come with a couple of thorny sticking points.  A number of agencies, firms and schools are working to overcome these barriers, which we’ll explore in a bit more depth in a moment, but there is still some significant innovation and refinement needed to ensure that these potential carbon offset mechanisms can be credible, effective and viable for ACUPCC signatories.

The first three mechanisms by which campus lands might be employed as carbon offsets are reforestation, afforestation (in other words, planting new forests on land that was not previously forested), and enhanced forest management (revamping existing practices of care and harvesting to keep trees growing for as long—and only for as long—as they increase their carbon uptake by a certain rate annually.)  All three are offset techniques for which there are methodologies in the existing offset protocols and programs (for example, CAR and VCS, both featured in other articles in this edition of the Implementer, have standards for afforestation and/or reforestation projects).  These methodologies are meant to address issues of measurement and credibility, since without such standards the way in which forest carbon sequestration is measured and credited could be too subjective.

Two additional issues particularly relevant to these kinds of forest-based offsets are synchronicity and permanence. Both of these are characteristics cited in the ACUPCC Offset Protocol as important elements of acceptable offsets.   Synchronicity—the idea that the carbon reductions (or avoidance) that occur as the result of an offset need to occur in roughly the same time frame as the emissions they are offsetting, in order to be valid—is naturally a question if one is creating new forests now to offset current emissions, since the trees in that forest will take years, even decades, to reach their full sequestration potential.  And permanence is always a hard qualification to establish for forest projects, susceptible as they are to pest infestation, fire or other natural disasters that could very rapidly and unexpectedly re-release the carbon sequestered there (though there are measures specified by VCS, for example, to account for this risk.).

These roadblocks are not stopping schools from looking at the potential of these types of forestry projects (on their land or even on the land of potential partners in the community), but it has meant that there are few if any such projects that have been implemented to date.  Cornell and  Duke universities are a couple examples of schools that have stated their intentions to explore the potential for such projects, or have actively begun researching them, but to date few if any schools have actually implemented such a project on their own lands, and only a handful have invested in such projects in other locations (Temple is one, Connecticut College is another).

A third potential offset mechanism that is getting a hard look by a number of ACUPCC schools (and others)[1] is biochar.  Biochar is similar to charcoal, except that instead of being used as a fuel, it is applied as a soil amendment and used to effectively sequester carbon in the soil.  It is produced by subjecting biomass to pyrolysis, or combustion at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen.  The process of pyrolysis can actually be optimized to generate biochar or to generate biogas.  The implication is that schools producing biomass (wood chips, but also corn stover, switchgrass, even yard waste) might employ pyrolysis to create biochar from that biomass—which can then be used both to improve agricultural soils (as an alternative to chemical fertilizer) and to sequester carbon—thus creating a carbon offset.  (It’s also theoretically possible to use biochar in energy systems that currently rely on coal combustion, or, to substitute the biogas created through pyrolysis for natural gas, or even a liquid transportation fuel in some applications.)

Much research is currently underway comparing the life-cycle use of energy to create biochar with the amount of energy use (and GHG emissions) that biochar can avoid or reduce.  The results of those analyses differ depending on the type of feedstock used, but in general the results look quite promising.[2] Beyond the technical questions of biochar’s energy and carbon balance, the economic viability of producing and using it (as either a fossil fuel substitute or a soil amendment to sequester carbon) is still being worked out.  While many experiments at a small scale are underway, there is as yet no commercial-scale biochar production, largely because the economics are not yet highly favorable.  Nevertheless, this is one potential offset technology that you should expect to be hearing much more about in the coming months and years.

Jennifer Andrews is Director of Program Planning and Integration at Clean Air-Cool Planet (CA-CP), whose Consumers Guide to Carbon Offsets was a ground-breaking publication in 2006 and continues to be an important resource on the promise and pitfalls of carbon offsets, and the basics of offset quality.  Jenn was a member of the working group that produced the ACUPCC Offset Protocol in 2008.

[1] The University of Illinois, University of Georgia, Cornell University, and the University of Colorado are a few among a growing number of schools researching the production and use of biochar.

[2] See, for example, the study published by Reberts et al in Environmental Science and Technology last year: http://www.citeulike.org/user/kmscow/article/7165547, or the presentation of their research: http://www.cns.umass.edu/biochar09/presentations/Roberts.ppt

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By Michael Jay Walsh, Ph.D. Candidate and Member of Cornell University’s COP-16 Delegation
(This article appears in the January, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)


The Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) could have been a eulogy for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The failure to obtain a long-term legally binding agreement at COP-15 in Copenhagen substantially lowered expectations that a deal to manage global greenhouse gas emissions could be worked out by the UNFCCC. However the 2010 Conference closed on a high note with consensus being achieved on several important agreements, in forestry, financing and technology transfer.


UNCF and Second Nature hosted a side event at COP-16 on the ACUPCC as a framework for advancing sustainability

At the onset of the conference, tensions were elevated as numerous countries expressed misgivings about the backroom process that lead to COP-15’s political, yet non-official, Copenhagen Accord. Trying to alleviate these concerns, the President of COP-16, Mexican Minster of Foreign Affairs Patricia Espinosa, continuously pledged transparency as agreements were drafted.

Such efforts to placate the convention attendees were drowned out on the conference’s opening day when Japan vociferously stated that it would not agree to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, with Canada and Australia following suit. Whether or not to extend the first agreement to reduce emissions past the 2012 sunset has been a looming issue since the failure in Copenhagen to obtain a long-term, legally binding replacement for it.


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Recently Cornell announced that alum David Atkinson ’60 and his wife Patricia are giving $80 million to fund the Center for a Sustainable Future.  It is the largest gift the Ithaca campus has ever received from an individual.

It shows that a strong commitment to education for sustainability — often mis-percieved as necessarily increasing costs — can open up new and significant opportunities for funding.  The Center, which was established with a $3 million gift from Atkinson three years ago, had already attracted over $55 million in funding from other sources.

The Center’s director, Frank DiSalvo, has a tremendous opportunity to help

Patricia and David Atkinson | credit: Jason Koski/University Photography

higher education lead the way in creating a sustainable society. In his post about the gift, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Scott Carlson quotes DiSalvo as saying:

“My view of universities in the last century is that we focused on developing really strong disciplines, and that much of the focus has been disciplinary,” Mr. DiSalvo said. “The problems of this century are going to require that we cut across disciplines to bring together teams with a variety of expertise to address these problems.”

Researchers need to look at the world in terms of interconnected systems, he said. “We have spent much of the last century trying to intervene here and there, trying to make surgical strikes in energy or environment or somewhere, and most of the time we end up with unintended consequences because we’re not looking at the whole interacting system.”

Frank DiSalvo, Director of Cornell's Center for a Sustainable Future

Cornell has already established an impressive track record in taking a holistic approach to sustainability – working to integrate research, education, operations and community engagement.

Cornell has leading research in energy, water, agriculture and biochar.

In addition to hundreds of courses relevant to sustainability, they offer dozens of sustainability degrees that stretch across disciplines.

With regard to operations, Cornell is aiming to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 by following a comprehensive web-based climate action plan. Cornell is a charter signatory of the ACUPCC and President Skorton has been a consistent and effective leader in making sustainability a priority.  And it’s paying off.

As Carlson goes on to note in his post:

The center’s work may also have some tangible benefits for operations at Cornell, which has signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and has worked on new ways to power its campus.

Meeting the commitment is “going to require interactions with research and development,” Mr. DiSalvo said. Because Cornell has 40 square miles of land, those researchers have lots of room to experiment with deep geothermal projects, biofuels, carbon sequestration, waste composting, and other projects.

In terms of community engagement, the University is a driving force in Ithaca and plays an active role in the Tompkins County Climate Protection Agreement, which helps to coordinate and align the many efforts by local government, business, non-profits, and education institutions like Cornell, and fellow ACUPCC signatories Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College.

Creating a sustainable society will take unprecedented levels of collaboration – across disciplines, across sectors, across cultures – and colleges and universities need to lead the way in creating the spaces for that to happen.  DiSalvo articulates this sentiment speaking about the Center:

“The center provides the means and programs to build new, multidisciplinary collaborations and the external partnerships needed to tackle important and complex problems.  Chemists are meeting economists, biologists are meeting historians, and so on, and the faculty and staff are transforming Cornell into a living and learning laboratory for sustainability.”

This gift is a tremendous validation of Cornell’s great leadership towards sustainability.  It is an example of how taking a holistic approach to education for sustainability that engages people from all disciplines and all parts of the institution, along with a bold public commitment, a comprehensive planning effort, and ardent support and leadership from the senior leadership opens up new opportunities for success. Indeed, these elements are increasingly necessary for institutions of higher education to be effective and relevant in the 21st century.

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By Steve Muzzy, Senior Associate, Second Nature

(This article appears in the November, 2010 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)


The 4th Annual American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) Climate Leadership Summit met October 12-13 in Denver, CO. The nearly 200 participants got right to work sharing challenges and best practices and outlining the future direction of the commitment. Highlights from the Summit follow.

James WoolseyJames Woolsey, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Bill Clinton, provided the opening keynote address. Mr. Woolsey’s presentation focused on the impending threats to national security that are being posed by an increasingly unstable climate. His perspective creatively threaded the current and future social and environmental implications of our reigning energy policy as well as provided some promising existing mechanisms to scale renewable energy production. Note: Mr. Woolsey’s presentation and all Summit presentations will be available on the ACUPCC website soon. (more…)

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The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) continues to accelerate progress towards climate neutrality and sustainability on a regional basis in and around Ithaca, NY. With three ACUPCC signatory institutions – Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College – and a concentration of leading businesses, NGO’s, and government agencies, the coalition is developing and implementing innovative solutions.

Recent activities include:

  • Co-sponsored with the Ithaca Downtown Alliance and the Park Foundation a public lecture in early May by David Orr on the Oberlin project – standing room only crowd at the county library!
  • Co-Sponsored with the Cayuga Medical Center a luncheon the following day with about 3 dozen community leaders with David Orr to discuss how the lessons of Oberlin might apply to downtown redevelopment in Ithaca
  • Collaborated with the Tompkins County Landlords Association to carry out a survey of landlords in the county about energy efficiency and barriers to more widespread investment in this area of property management. Results were presented at the July meeting.
  • Co-sponsored the summer rollout of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Tompkins County Energy Corps, which includes 15 students from Cornell and Ithaca College conducting energy audits and sharing information about energy efficiency as well as state and federal incentives.
  • County planning officials presented a draft of the County’s 2020 Energy Action Plan at the May meeting and received feedback from the group. A very substantive discussion that helped refine the county’s thinking.
  • Gary Stewart, assistant director of community relations for Cornell University, has taken leadership of newly formed TCCPI outreach working group which will seek to raise the profile of TCCPI in the community as well as outside it.
  • Kicked off what will be an ongoing discussion of the impact of Marcellus Shale drilling on greenhouse gas emissions with outstanding presentations by Cornell professors Tony Ingraffea and Bob Howarth.
  • New members of the coalition since February include HOLT Architects, Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, and Tompkins County Solid Waste.
  • The Park Foundation renewed TCCPI’s funding for another two years with a 20 percent increase beginning July 1

TCCPI is a program of Second Nature, coordinated by senior fellow Peter Bardaglio, former Provost of Ithaca College and co-author of Boldly Sustainable. For more information on the program, its history, and its goals, please visit: www.tccpi.org.

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