The University’s new Climate Action Plan is good for the environment—and won’t hurt Penn’s bottom line, either. By John Prendergast


Nov|Dec 09 contents
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"Red and Blue makes Green" By John Prendergast
Illustration by Chris Sharp




At least until she got self-conscious and started to laugh, the young woman perched on the wall outside Houston Hall wearing an orange rain-poncho was vaguely reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty. Rather than a torch, though, she held aloft a hand-painted sign. It showed the word THINK beneath that traditional signifier of a bright idea, a light bulb. But this light bulb was not the familiar, well, bulbous shape of an incandescent but one featuring the curved tubes of an energy-saving compact fluorescent model.

With her other arm, she urged passersby inside Houston Hall to join the celebration—relocated from College Green due to a drizzling rain—marking the release of the University’s Climate Action Plan, which lays out Penn’s strategy for reducing its carbon footprint and becoming more environmentally sustainable. Development of the plan was set in motion when Penn President Amy Gutmann signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) in February 2007.

The ACUPCC is an effort to leverage the $317 billion higher education industry’s influence, skills, and economic clout to advance efforts to counter global warming—starting with their own environmental impacts. Signatories ackowledge that “global warming is real and is largely being caused by humans” and that a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 80 percent is needed by 2050 to “avert the worst impacts.” Institutions that sign on pledge to perform a comprehensive inventory of their greenhouse gas emissions within a year, and, by two years, to “develop an institutional action plan for becoming climate neutral.” Participants also had to pick among a series of short-term actions to cut emissions (several of which the University was already doing), and promise to make the results of the inventory, the action plan, and subsequent progress reports publicly available.

As of this fall, more than 650 schools have signed the commitment. Penn was among the earliest; it and about 350 other institutions were supposed to submit their plans by September 15. One reason for the September 16 rally was to celebrate meeting that deadline.

Inside Houston Hall’s Bodek Lounge, students, some of them holding more signs (“Red and Blue Makes Green,” “We Want to Compost Now,” “Love Trees,” “Learn to Sustain Our Earth,” “Live Clean, Play Dirty”) along with staff, faculty, and community members paused at table-top exhibits around the room’s perimeter offering information on Penn’s various green initiatives. At one table people could compare the feel of traditional caps and gowns with the ones made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic bottles that next year’s graduates will suit up in for Commencement. At others they could meet members of the student-run food-sustainability group FarmEcology, pick up a copy of the course list for the University’s new undergraduate minor in Sustainability and Environmental Management, or learn about the “virtual” environmental umbrella-group Green Campus Partnership ( The most popular table seemed to be the one set up by Penn’s new food vendor, Bon Appetit, chosen in part for its sustainable food practices, where locally grown apples and cider were being handed out.

“Penn is proud to be an environmental leader among American colleges and universities,” President Gutmann said in a statement announcing the plan’s release. “The health of our planet depends on our actions and Penn is committed to leading higher education’s green revolution into the future.”

At the rally, she lauded the document as “the finest university climate action plan on this planet,” and praised Anne Papageorge, vice president for facilities and real estate (FRES), for her leadership in bringing together the University’s various constituencies to create it. Papageorge chaired the Environmental Sustainability Advisory Committee (ESAC), made up of staff, faculty, and students—more than 40 people in all—responsible for developing the plan’s recommendations.

Gutmann also singled out Dan Garofalo GAr’87 G’03 LPS’08, the FRES staffer who serves as Penn’s environmental sustainability coordinator (ESC)—a position mandated by the ACUPCC—as the “heart, mind, soul of this report,” and recognized the faculty and student leaders who served on the ESAC for their contributions.

Penn’s “special talent” for doing more with less “resonates ever more powerfully” in the context of the environment, Gutmann added. The Climate Action Plan is all about “achieving a more innovative Penn, a more intellectually exciting and integrated Penn, and a more sustainable Penn, with less use of carbon-based fuels, less waste, and less harm to the environment.” She called the document a “roadmap for doing what we do best—imagining a better future for ourselves and the world, translating our vision into reality by integrating our scholarly expertise across our 12 schools in the area of sustainability, and putting our knowledge to work by engaging communities all over the world.”

The plan traces Penn’s history of environmental awareness and increasing engagement with issues of sustainability in its design and operational practices, and includes long-term projections aimed at reaching climate neutrality by mid-century. (The complete text and an executive summary are available at the GCP website, along with lots more information.) But the main thrust is a series of actions that will significantly shrink Penn’s carbon footprint over the next five years:

Penn will reduce its energy consumption by 5 percent this year and 17 percent by 2014, avoiding 86,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCDE) and saving an estimated $13.7 million along the way.

As the campus is enhanced with developments like Penn Park on the former postal lands, which will add more than 20 new acres of green space, new construction and renovation projects will be designed to meet strict standards for energy efficiency developed by the U.S. Green Building Council and the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy.

Campus recycling rates will be doubled, from 20 percent to 40 percent, by developing comprehensive policies, providing more education, and ensuring that proper receptacles are widely distributed.

Through discounted fares, more (and more secure) bicycle racks on campus, and other incentive programs, walking, biking, carpooling, and use of public transportation will be encouraged, with the goal of getting more than half of Penn’s population to stop driving solo, up from the current 40 percent who choose alternative means of transport.

Courses, seminars and workshops, and other educational opportunities will be made available to provide a robust academic component, so that all Penn students can learn about climate change and environmental sustainability. Besides the new minor, plans call for the 2010 Penn Reading Project selection to relate to sustainability, for example.

Finally, a comprehensive communications program will be put in place to ensure that Penn’s environmental goals, progress toward achieving them, and ways to participate will be disseminated widely and in a variety of formats.

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