GrowWNY is taking sustainability reporting to a new level. As you may have noticed, many companies are hiring a sustainability officer to manage their “environmental” programs. We’re going to start interviewing local leaders charged with sustainability in their organization. Stay tuned over the next few months to hear more about some of the innovative solutions they are developing to create a better and more sustainable future for Western New York.
GrowWNY: All right, I am here at the University of Buffalo to talk with the Chief Sustainability Officer, Ryan McPherson (RM), for the GrowWNY.org blog. I’m Alex Epstein with Grow Western New York (GrowWNY). Thanks so much for meeting with me today.
RM: My pleasure. Glad to have you.
GrowWNY: I was hoping to speak to you today about sustainability: what is it, how can we reach it, and what is UB doing to help in that regard?
GrowWNY: So, Ryan, to start out, what would you say your roles are as the Chief Sustainability Officer at the University of Buffalo?
RM: Well, the role is really two-fold. One aspect is to connect and collaborate across the University. You know, we are really a “small city” of 40,000 people during the school year, during the semesters at least, when we have all the students here. We also have a rather vast enterprise of 12 different schools, helping to all collaborate on sustainability in various ways all in one place. So, my role is really to connect and collaborate across the University with all the different sustainability pieces that are going on [in each department]. Whether it is creating curriculum to help develop sustainability literate students, staff, and faculty. Or, whether it is in our operations. Like I said, we have a lot of people, so we have a decent size [carbon]footprint. Everyday we are researching to find solutions to mitigate this footprint and its adverse environmental effects. Then, we synthesize these solutions to develop a coherent sustainability strategy that moves the University forward. An example of this is our Climate Action Plan (CAP), a massive 200-page document explaining how we as a University will reach our goal of climate neutrality by 2030.
The other side of my job, which sounds simple, but really is complex, is trying to create a culture of sustainability here at UB. We do this mainly through outreach, education, communication, and engagement; we are trying to infuse, as best as possible, the concept of sustainability into our everyday thinking: in the classroom, in our operations, in our research and our engagements. So really, my job has two prongs to it: 1) to connect and collaborate across the University and bring together a coherent sustainability strategy and then, 2) to create a culture of sustainability here at UB.
GrowWNY: Wow. Well that sounds fantastic. I am smiling hearing that... What interests me most about what you just said is the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability that you are focused on here at UB. So often, from my understanding, the term “sustainable” gets pigeonholed into a group of phrases that seems exclusive to environmentalists. That’s not the case here at UB, I am seeing. Physics, biology, chemistry, engineering, computer science, information technology, environmental science, sociology, economics, history, psychology, and the like, are all necessary components of the research and implementation behind developing a sustainable strategy for the University.
RM: That’s exactly right. We are trying to take a very holistic style approach to sustainability. And also, you are right in saying that sometimes the term sustainability is misperceived. I think just by using the word itself is part of the problem. At its essence, people may have a definition or a concept of it, but many times there’s lots of ways to define that, and I think sometimes people get the word “environment” confused with “sustainability.” Sustainability is a much broader topic than the environment, and there are really many other ways to define sustainability. For instance, The Iroquois Confederacy has a long history of making sure that every decision they make is not going to adversely affect the seventh generation down the pipeline. Or, for another example, “enough for all, forever,” an African proverb that really encapsulates the definition of sustainability in its broadest terms. But the key question that I like to ask individual people is “what sustains you?” I really enjoy having them think about that from a holistic angle, to have them realize on their own what sustainability means to them.
So, yes, there are many people who are Toyota Prius drivers and Birkenstock wearers that have a firm base or foundation of interest, if you will, in sustainability issues because of the environment; and I think we have a proud history of that… It was only 40 years ago that great waterways were catching fire from environmental toxicity. The true issue of sustainability,
however, is a much broader issue that requires looking at ourselves culturally and not just through the lens of the “environment.” The triangle of sustainability, as we like to call it here, encompasses more than just the environment. It requires economic efficiency and human capital as well. That’s the way we here at UB view sustainability: as a holistic process. We aren’t telling people they need to live in the dark, or that they need to eat tofu burgers (laughs), we are just encouraging people to think about and analyze the ways in which they manage the precious, finite resources of our planet.
GrowWNY: Well, the dark doesn’t sound too ideal… But the tofu burgers… (laughs). So my next question is, what is UB doing specifically to become more sustainable, to reduce this environmental footprint, and reach the University’s goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2030?
RM: Great question. One of the most recent examples of our commitment to sustainability and reducing our footprint can be seen in the construction of William Greiner Hall, a student living complex that has been awarded a LEED Gold status for its building efficiency and performance. Sure, the up front costs of building a “green building” were more than the construction of a conventional style building, but after a few years, we will not only have paid back the up front costs—but we will also be making money off our investment. This is because of decreased utility costs and cleaning costs, all because of smart design principles that save money and push UB forward more towards a sustainable living environment and culture. Another example of what UB is doing to reduce its [carbon] footprint can be seen in the installation and opening of The Solar Strand, a 750 kW solar array on UB’s North Campus. As of now, thirty percent of UB’s energy comes from renewable energy resources other than hydroelectric power: mainly wind, solar, and methane capture. We are obviously incorporating our operational emissions into our Climate Action Plan, and by increasing the renewable energy portfolio by “X percent” every year, it will ultimately help us to reach our goal of climate neutrality by 2030.
We also are working on developing smarter transportation throughout the campus to reduce student reliance on the automobile. Whether it is through our “Bike Sharing” initiative, or developing buses with GPS locators on them to let students know which buses are close by [using a Smartphone application], these are all examples of ways we are trying to reduce our footprint and create a culture of sustainability here on the UB campus.
What’s your definition of sustainability? Ryan wants to know, “what sustains you?” Leave a comment below, and be sure to stay tuned for other sustainability-related interviews in greater Western New York!