On Sept. 17, Princeton hosted a sustainability open house in Frist Campus Center to showcase sustainability efforts by academic departments, administrative groups and student organizations. Honestly, I was quite surprised after attending: I was completely unaware of the vastness and depth of involvement the Princeton community had engaged in to address a variety of sustainability-related issues. Booths were run by students in shorts alongside businesspeople in suits. With free food, light bulb exchanges and environmental models and demos, it was a great opportunity for the campus community to witness and participate in a culture of sustainability.
Despite all the involvement and initiatives, Princeton has been falling behind a few of its peer institutions. The 2009 College Sustainability Report Card gives Princeton a B for its sustainability efforts. For comparison, five of the seven other Ivy League schools (Harvard, Penn, Brown, Dartmouth and Columbia) received the highest grade awarded, an A-, and the remaining two (Yale and Cornell) received a B+.
Across most of the criteria assessed in Princeton's report card, student-started programs were positively cited. It seems in the report that Students United for a Responsible Global Environment's (SURGE) Pull the Plug campaign and USG's U-Bikes program were mistaken as administrative programs. Without these student initiatives, Princeton may have received a lower grade across all criteria.
This is not to say the administration has been terrible at green efforts. Princeton has a sustainability plan that has set several goals for the University to achieve by 2020, ranging from greenhouse gas reduction to resource conservation to community education. One goal I'd like to highlight is its pledge to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, which is fairly ambitious. I believe a leading university like Princeton should take on even more ambitious goals, however. The Oregon Institute of Technology announced last month it would be the first university to rely entirely on geothermal energy, while the University of Oklahoma plans to depend solely on wind energy by 2013. It would therefore not be unreasonable for Princeton to pursue similar projects. A national university of Prineton's caliber with a $15.8 billion endowment should be able to pursue very green policies.
Here is my proposal: Princeton should append carbon neutral policies to the current plan and set a timetable for achieving true sustainability. This means driving the net emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to zero, completely erasing Princeton's carbon footprint. The current university plan aims to reduce emissions solely through on-campus activities. If it chooses not to purchase carbon offsets, the University could practically realize carbon neutrality if it looked into buying land and implementing renewable energy sources off campus. This would complement the cogeneration plant on campus. Students have already taken on the cause; members of SURGE are drafting a proposal to present to the Board of Trustees to consider investing in offshore or onshore wind power, one of the most feasible renewable energy sources. Solar power would not be optimal in the winter, and New Jersey's geothermal resources are not adequate for electricity generation.
One of the first steps President Tilghman could take is joining 582 presidents of other colleges in the United States that have signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. The commitment sets a timetable for colleges to develop plans to head toward climate neutrality. Signatories include the presidents from Penn and the entire University of California system, as well as Maria Klawe, the former Dean of the Engineering Schoo here at Princeton and current president of Harvey Mudd College.
Princeton's future does appear promising, though. With a new certificate program in sustainable energy and a $100 million donation for environmental research at the future Andlinger Center, Princeton is preparing to address the world's environmental and sustainability needs of the 21st century. Student-driven initiatives have definitely made Princeton a greener campus, and getting the administration more involved could drive it to set more ambitious policies.
Signing to go carbon neutral would accelerate all plans to improve recycling efforts, broadly educate the student body and the community, make our transportation system more efficient, reduce the energy needs of buildings, grant more funds to student initiatives and so on. Princeton is already making the drive to go green. Let's put the pedal to the metal and go carbon neutral.
Ben Chen is a mechanical and aerospace engineer from Los Altos, Calif. He can be reached at email@example.com.