From David Skorton
MAY/JUN. 2007 VOLUME 109 NUMBER 6

Sustainability: Progress and Prospects

SkortonbUILDING ON CORNELL'S LONG history of research, education, student activism, and institutional involvement in sustainability issues, I have signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (PCC). This agreement commits Cornell to strive for climate neutrality in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and includes some specific actions to be carried out over the upcoming months and years.

Signing the PCC affirms the hard work of many individuals and groups on our campus--including faculty, student activists in KyotoNow!, and staff members who served on an ad hoc PCC committee co-chaired by Vice President Carolyn Ainslie and Executive Vice President Stephen Golding--and it organizes our collective efforts around a continuing university priority that draws upon our long-standing commitment to teaching, research, and practical application.

There is no argument about the existence of global warming, but there is continuing inquiry about potential causes of the change in climate. The University is in an excellent position to contribute new knowledge that will help us understand underlying mechanisms and therefore potential changes in behaviors and processes that might positively affect our climate and our planet. A wide range of research on these issues is already under way.

A few examples, from a much longer list: Sturt Manning, professor of classics, is using historical tree-ring data to assess climate changes going back thousands of years. Kathryn Gleason '79, associate professor of landscape architecture, is excavating a sixteenth-century Indian palace that once supported elaborate gardens, despite its desert location, to gain ideas for developing sustainable gardens in arid areas worldwide. Kerry Cook, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, studies the physical processes in current climate changes to inform our understanding of future climate. Larry Walker, professor of biological and environmental engineering, is developing technologies to convert perennial grasses and woody biomass into ethanol. Drew Harvell, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, is studying the effects of rising ocean temperatures on coral reefs. Norman Uphoff, professor in the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture, and Development, promotes a system of rice intensification that requires less water, fertilizer, and seed than conventional methods, yet may increase yields by 50 to 100 percent or more; the system is now being tried in nearly forty countries around the globe. And Professor Tom Eisner's new State of the Planet course, developed in response to student requests, has an enrollment of 300.

During his presidency, Jeff Lehman '77 identified “sustainability in the age of development” as a major theme for the campus, and Provost Biddy Martin has asked a faculty group to determine what the specific priorities for a university-wide sustainability initiative should be and what might emerge from interaction among those interested in alternate energy systems, the environment, and the economic and social dimensions of sustainability. Our focus is on education and research, and we will encourage increased public and private spending on the science underlying these issues.

While our education and research are progressing, Cornell must continue to improve its stewardship of campus resources and reduce its environmental footprint. The Lake Source Cooling (LSC) project reduced our use of electricity for air conditioning by 80 percent.With LSC and other measures in place, we will soon exceed our Kyoto Protocol commitment to a 7 percent reduction of 1990 carbon dioxide levels by 2012. New facilities, including the Life Sciences Technology Building and MVR-North, will qualify for U.S. Greenbuilding Council certification because of their energy efficiency and commitment to “green building” technologies. In addition, Cornell employs a full-time sustainability coordinator, Dean Koyanagi '90, BS HE '01, who reports directly to Executive Vice President Golding.

Cornell is also working in conjunction with local partners to utilize biodiesel fuel in Cornell vehicles and city and county fleets. Nearly 23 percent of the produce served in campus dining halls comes from New York State farmers, helping the local and regional economy while further reducing fossil fuel consumption. Solar panels installed on Day Hall, the Cornell Store, and Shoals Marine Laboratory will serve as demonstration projects and teaching tools. Our students as well as our faculty and staff have pushed us to innovate in this area and to think about these issues in an integrated way.

The PCC commits Cornell to an even more aggressive series of actions in education, research, and stewardship. Signing the PCC is but one indication of Cornell's commitment to contribute to solutions for what is certainly one of our age's greatest concerns.

-- President David Skorton
david.skorton@cornell.edu