Sustainable Dividends
At Penn, what’s good for the environment pays off in other ways, too.

By Amy Gutmann | As a movie fan I was intrigued to learn that Philadelphia-based filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan is basing his new thriller on an environmental theme. Scientists now agree that our planet confronts climate changes that eventually could have catastrophic consequences for life on Earth. This unsettling news has convinced many governments, organizations, and individuals of the need to cut back on potentially harmful practices and to treat the environment with greater care.

Is environmental sustainability, as some critics suggest, a zero-sum game? To make significant environmental progress must we accept higher financial costs, commit to burdensome behavioral changes, or both?

Not at Penn. For years we have been taking the environmental high road while incurring minimal financial risk and, in many instances, saving money.

When I signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment earlier this year, Penn pledged to develop a comprehensive sustainability plan by 2009. Yet we made a surprising discovery when we examined the policies and initiatives recommended under this pact: Penn already is running lengths ahead of most of our peers and fellow signatories.

For example, signatory institutions aim to purchase at least 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. Penn has been the nation’s largest nongovernmental purchaser of wind power since 2003. Today, we purchase 30 percent of our energy from wind power.

We funded this path-breaking initiative through aggressive energy conservation. For example, we reduced our electricity demand by 18 percent during peak usage periods. When I remind members of the Penn community that setting our thermostats to 78 degrees on the hottest days and 68 degrees on the coldest can save Penn up to $4 million in energy costs over a year, they are happy to comply.

The Climate Commitment document also recommends making public transportation easily accessible to faculty, students, and staff. Penn’s investment in a sustainable University City already has paid off in extensive, safe, and efficient local transit that is popular and widely used. We also partner with SEPTA to offer a 10 percent discount on local and regional rail systems, reducing auto commuting and congestion. Our continued investment in bike paths and secure bike parking promotes healthy commuting.

No surprise that the Sustainability Endowments Institute earlier this year recognized Penn as a Campus Sustainability Leader.

We have put a premium on environmental responsibility not to claim bragging rights, but rather because as a leading teaching and research university, we have a duty to be agents of long-range thinking that will serve humankind today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.

Our campus planning underscores our commitment to best environmental practices. For example, our recent renovations of Fisher-Bennett Hall and ongoing work in the high rises fulfill one of the “greenest” strategies: adaptive reuse of existing buildings. Our plans for the first phase of Penn Connects include the reuse of stone and paving materials, native plants for landscaping, and stormwater management. We have targeted our new Center for Advanced Medicine to meet the U.S. Green Building Council standards for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.

We plan to incorporate climate neutrality and sustainability into the lives of Penn students. For example, as part of our ongoing renovations to the high rise College Houses, we plan to install a monitoring system that will give students real-time feedback on how their lifestyles affect energy use. This exciting first step could lead one day to “environmental competition” among our College Houses—although I expect that a majority of our students will continue to burn the midnight oil during Finals.

Student groups like the Green Campus Partnership have long been engaged in sustainability efforts at Penn. Guided by this group’s recommendations, we are installing outdoor recycling bins this summer. Likewise, our Dining Service’s FarmEcology program, which supports local farmers and brings fresh food to the dining halls, was the brainchild of Penn undergraduates. We look forward to evaluating a pilot program for cafeteria composting.

Our eminent faculty are giving Penn’s environmental efforts an innovative edge on campus and around the world. For example, Penn Design is assessing Penn’s environmental footprint, while a faculty/staff team is benchmarking utility use and recommending strategies for operations. We soon will move forward on a pilot energy and cost savings program developed by researchers at the Chan Center for Building Simulation and Energy Studies; you may recall that Penn established this center last year in partnership with China’s Tsinghua University.

At the same time, faculty from seven Penn schools are developing a path-breaking International Environmental Management Institute (IEMI) in collaboration with colleagues from partner educational institutions in Europe and Asia. Researchers and public and private organizations will work together toward devising practical solutions to environmental challenges. Our faculty also envision annual conferences, postgraduate dual-degree programs in environmental management and executive-education programs, corporate environmental internships, and research hubs on four continents.

The IEMI already has tapped a rich vein of interest around the globe. Its first conference in March drew representatives from the United Nations Global Compact, the National Council for Science and the Environment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Paris School of Mines, the Green Building Council of Brazil, the Embassy of France, Xerox, General Electric, Exelon, Merck, Starbucks, and BASF, to name only a few.

Even without the plot twists of a Shyamalan film, Penn’s environmental story is drawing rave reviews. The more institutions that follow Penn’s lead, the closer we will be to bequeathing a magnificent world of beauty and wonder for filmmakers to interpret and for all living creatures to enjoy.

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