Back in the days of the Old West, the University of Arizona already was green. Literally. Inspired by the sagebrush, a hardy shrub whose small footprint and ability to conserve precious resources allow it to thrive in the harsh Arizona desert, the plant's chartreuse green was one of the UA's original school colors.
One hundred and twenty-seven years later, the colors have changed to red and blue, but the UA remains committed to following the example of the sagebrush and becoming a sustainable campus.
In collaboration with the Office of External Relations and several other UA units, the UA Office of Sustainability now has published a Climate Action Plan, which outlines a blueprint for tracking and reducing the University's greenhouse gas emissions.
By signing the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, or ACUPCC, the UA's leadership has expressed its concern about the unprecedented scale and speed and of global warming. The climate action plan is a collaborative effort supported by the President's Advisory Council on Environmental Sustainability, which includes vice presidents, deans, student leaders, employee representatives, and community leaders.
"The Climate Action Plan brings greater visibility to our voluntary commitment to track and reduce UA greenhouse gas emissions and builds on recent investments by UA Facilities Management and other operational units responsible for the main sources of our emissions," said Joe Abraham, head of the UA Office of Sustainability.
He added that although ACUPCC signatories commit to eventually achieving zero net greenhouse gas emissions, that goal may be decades away.
"A lot can be done, and has been done, in the meantime to make our campus ever more sustainable," he said. "We are a global leader in climate change science and solutions, and we are an institution committed to ‘walking the walk' and reducing our own carbon footprint. We have done a number of things over the past several years that have kept our carbon footprint from growing, despite a fair amount of campus growth, but we need that footprint to start shrinking."
Many of those efforts were recognized in February, when the UA received a Gold rating for sustainability from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higer Eduation, or AASHE, a designation that puts the University in the upper echelon of higher education institutions committed to advancing sustainability.
"There is plenty of reason to believe we can reduce our carbon footprint just by changing the way employees and students behave," Abraham said. "We are engaging in conversations with various entities on campus: How do we create energy efficiency incentives? How can we continue switching to less carbon-intensive energy sources? How can we reduce the carbon footprint of commuting and air travel?"
The UA generates about one-third of its electricity on campus using natural gas, which is about half as carbon-intensive as coal, and even though hundreds of solar panels on several buildings are generating electricity, they meet less than 1 percent of the UA's energy demand.
Abraham said that over the next year, his office will lead a process to identify a wide range of strategies that, when implemented, will put the UA's greenhouse gas emissions on a downward trajectory.
"Many of our faculty members, staff and students are very passionate about the environment," he said. "Our goal is to end up with a clear plan to reduce our emissions over the next several years that is based on thoughtful analysis, realistic assumptions and solutions that can be implemented."
"To do this, we will engage a wide range of operational, academic and student affairs units in our process. We are also working with the City of Tucson to ensure our activities and plans are coordinated with their emission reduction strategies for the larger community."
About two-thirds of the UA's total emissions inventory come from production of electricity and steam, with the rest resulting from commuting and air travel. The current emphasis is on the main campus, but the commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions potentially extends to all employees, students and facilities statewide.
"Carbon neutrality or zero net carbon emissions sounds nice and ambitious, but when you really think about it, you realize how difficult this is to achieve," Abraham said, "especially with a large university like ours. All this research on our campus requires a lot of electricity 24-7."
He pointed out that the climate action plan presents a good opportunity for faculty to use the campus as a living lab for research and teaching projects on how to reduce emissions, a goal already set forth by the Arizona Board of Regents in the UA comprehensive campus plan.
"We invite faculty to get involved in our assessment of carbon-reduction strategies and use the process to teach students about climate-change solutions in a familiar setting."
In one student-driven project, UA undergraduates led a three-year effort to raise funds and install 44 photovoltaic panels on the roof of their residence hall, which now serves as a hands-on solar research lab where students can access a system that monitors the building's energy production and usage over time. In the Residence Life "Battle of the Utilities," UA students engage in a friendly competition on which residence hall can save the most water and electricity.
According to Jill Ramirez, residence life sustainability education coordinator, competing residence halls last fall saved more than 18 million gallons of water, enough to fill 47 Olympic-size swimming pools 8 feet deep, in just one month.
As another example, Abraham pointed to the UA Campus Arboretum, the oldest continually maintained green space in Arizona. With a grant from the UA Green Fund, the arboretum director and students have been inventorying 7,810 trees on campus and use specialized software to study how much carbon those trees stow away from the atmosphere.
An earlier, less comprehensive survey of the arboretum discovered that the campus biomass sequesters about 166 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. Said Abraham: "While this is a drop in the bucket, it's a great example of how we are already using our campus to teach students about solutions and give them the skills to do similar work out in the world."
In addition to determining carbon sequestered, studies like this make it possible to put dollars and cents to the value of ecological services, such as the shade and the air quality those trees provide," he added. "They also help people realize that our campus is an arboretum that provides valuable benefits, not just a beautiful landscape."
With buildings consuming the lion share of energy on campus, UA Facilities Management is one of the crucial players in the effort to curb greenhouse gases. Abraham pointed out that the UA's chilled water system is one of the largest and most energy efficient in the world, toured by engineers from around the world.
Taking advantage of off-peak electricity during night-time, the UA's "ice plant" chills water after dark to provide air conditioning the entire main campus during the day. In addition, an innovative system recently installed on campus in a nationwide first uses the sun's energy not only for heating but also for cooling.
Collectors atop the UA's Recreation Center utilize heat from the sun as a free energy source to drive an absorption chilling system to help keep buildings on campus cool while also heating the Rec Center's main swimming pool. In addition to such "hardware" improvements, creating awareness and building capacity are two of the most important goals and opportunities for a large educational institution as the UA.
"The nearly 700 ACUPCC signatory institutions can have a big impact on our society," Abraham said. "What if all our graduates understood the science, our commitment and asked crucial questions when they enter other institutions or the work environment, along the lines of ‘Why aren't we doing the same thing the UA is doing?'"