Yale’s environmental efforts took center stage at last week’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as global warming emerged as a dominant topic of discussion at the conference.
At the four-day meeting of 2,500 leaders from around the world, Yale President Richard Levin highlighted the University’s recent efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, garnering attention from other delegates and the international news media and solidifying his reputation as a leader on the issue of university sustainability. Although Yale is not at the top of its class on all issues of sustainability, the University’s highly-touted environmental goals are helping to spearhead a trend toward eco-friendly practices in higher education.
The clamor to reduce harmful emissions took on an urgency at Davos, where delegates from corporations, governments and non-profits discussed methods for stemming global warming. Yale, as well as other organizations and corporations, has committed to reducing its carbon footprint by increasing efficiency and reducing power consumption, said School of Forestry and Environmental Studies professor Daniel Esty, who attended the forum. Yale’s role as a sustainability forerunner made it a perfect poster child for environmentalism in Davos, Esty said.
“The big story coming out of Davos is the environment,” Esty said. “Everyone who’s got a leadership position in [environmental work] has been getting a lot of attention from the global media. Yale’s own efforts are being seen as a benchmark against which other universities are forming their policies.”
In the last year, Yale has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent.
The University is not alone in its commitment to reduce emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, a goal which it adopted in October 2005. Other universities have taken up similar goals in the last several years, and all of those schools set a time line for themselves of reducing greenhouse gas emissions within the next decade and a half. Tufts University, for example, set its emissions target eight years ago, pledging a 7 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2012.
While impressive in the context of the forum, a 10 percent reduction may not be enough in the eyes of institutions with more ambitious long-term plans. The University of California system announced in January 2006 a commitment to reducing greenhouse gases to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Last June, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pledged to reduce emissions to 60 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.
Still, Yale’s relatively short-term goal is typical of university sustainability commitments. Many schools used the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and other agreements as a basis on which to build their policies, said Stephanie Boyd, head of the Williams College Climate Action Committee. Williams last week formally adopted a commitment identical to Yale’s. When colleges and universities make such lofty goals, Boyd said, they inspire other institutions and individuals to look at their own energy expenditure habits.
“Everyone is into this business now, which is very encouraging,” she said. “What we have found at Williams is the more you talk about the issue, the more people adopt these practices in their everyday life.”
Though Williams did not cite Yale as the driving force behind its decision, Levin is pushing colleges to match Yale’s commitment to reduce emissions. James Merkel, sustainability coordinator at Dartmouth College, said Levin recently sent a letter to Dartmouth President James Wright, asking him to follow the same protocols.
Despite all of Yale’s press, Williams is in one way a step ahead in adopting sustainability policies. Yale’s secretive investment apparatus has counted against it in some estimations of the University’s efforts. In the College Sustainability Report Card, released by the Sustainable Endowments Institute last week, Yale earned a C in investment priorities and a D in endowment transparency, while Williams earned an A- average for its endowment policies — the only school out of the 100 studied to do so.
Private letters and worldwide forums aside, Levin’s role as a leader in university environmentalism is being noticed. Last November, he spoke at the Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium’s 2006 conference held at the Omni hotel. Levin gave the welcoming remarks before less than a tenth of the number of delegates that Davos attracted and did not garner international media attention. But that a university president — much less one as busy as Levin — would choose to address the conference spoke volumes about Yale’s commitment to sustainability, Merkel said.
“To get a president to speak at an event like that … It’s not easy to land busy people,” he said. “It just showed me that Yale is just taking it seriously.”
Though speeches need to be backed up with actions, Levin’s multiple public appearances are providing a model for organizations worldwide, said Kurt Teichert, Brown’s environmental coordinator. Speeches from top administrators — at universities or otherwise — set the tone for those lower down in the hierarchy, allowing for effective implementation of broad goals, he said.
“It’s important for any corporations now that more and more you have CEO’s making these proclamations,” he said.
The University’s emissions policy is not its only sustainability effort being mirrored nationwide. The Yale Sustainable Food Project is one notable example, with five Ivy League schools founding similar projects in the years following its 2003 debut at Yale.
Julie Newman, director of the University’s Office of Sustainability, said the office — founded in 2005 — was also an innovative structure with its combination of academic and operational roles.
“It demonstrated progressive thinking at the time,” Newman said. “New positions are starting to look at Yale’s model.”
She cited Princeton and Columbia as following Yale’s lead on how to structure a sustainability office.
As part of the October 2005 commitment to reducing greenhouse gases, residential colleges were expected to reduce their energy usage by 15 percent over three years. Last spring, the residential colleges exceeded projections with a 10.2 percent reduction in energy use in less than one year.