ASU abandoned most of its operational sustainability goals

The University made a lot of promises to go green, and it hasn’t delivered on almost any of them

In 2011, ASU made a lot of big promises to go green. Over the past eight years, rather than keep those promises, the University quietly extended deadlines, modified and replaced goals, or gave up on nearly all of them.

That year, the University debuted its sustainability masterpiece: a comprehensive 46-page plan detailing steps to make the University’s operations, staff and student body more environmentally sustainable.

The 2011 plan is obsolete now, according to Mick Dalrymple, a senior sustainability scientist and director of University Sustainability Practices. After becoming the director in 2015, he said he saw that the goals were not realistic.

"I read this, and I was like, 'Okay, well that’s like tomorrow,'" Dalrymple said.

The document lists four monumental goals, each divided into dozens of subgoals. 

The plan enumerates 266 steps to be completed to meet these goals, including marketing initiatives directed toward student news outlets, including The State Press.

A letter from Michael Crow on the third page of the document reads, “As you may imagine, this is a tremendous challenge, particularly for an institution our size; however, we are confident that by leveraging our strengths and working together, we can attain these aspirations while providing a high-quality university experience.”

A State Press Magazine investigation found that few, if any of the steps of the plan have been taken. Many of the goals with end dates prior to 2019 were not met, and the University is not on track to meet many of the goals set for the future, including an ambitious 2035 goal to go completely carbon neutral.

The University aimed to reach 90% of waste generated on campus diverted from landfills by 2015, but a 2018 report showed that less than half of all waste disposed of on campus was diverted. 

Aside from the lofty solid waste diversion goals, ASU aimed to reduce water consumption by 50% and eliminate 100% of water effluent (liquid waste that ends up in natural water sources) by 2020. However, a 2017 report shows that on-campus water use increased between 2007 and 2017, and the amount of wastewater remained more or less constant. 

Scope 2 and 3 greenhouse gas emissions (emissions produced indirectly from University operations) have decreased substantially. But Scope 1 emissions (produced directly from University operations) have increased about 3% since 2007, making a 100% reduction of Scope 1 emissions by 2025 seem unlikely.

The plan laid out the creation of a data reporting system to track quantitative progress. Susan Norton, a program manager for University Sustainability Practices, said that she had never heard of such a system. 

The 2011 goals are ambitious on many levels. At nearly 119,000 students, ASU has the largest student body in the country, but University Sustainability Practices, the department formally responsible for implementing the sustainability plan, employs just six full-time staff. 

The goals’ short-range end dates matched the urgency of climate change but were not feasible in terms of timely implementation.

“It’s just rough,” Norton said. “It’s not like there’s 30 of us embedding the campus with sustainability practices.”

Carbon neutrality

The one goal that was carried over from the 2011 plan to the current set of mostly nonquantitative goals is to make the University 100% carbon neutral by 2035.

The goal of carbon neutrality, or having no net addition of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, by 2035 was set in partnership with Second Nature, an organization that helps universities set and reach their carbon goals through grants and consultation. 

Steve Muzzy, a climate programs senior manager at Second Nature, did not answer as to whether or not ASU is on track to meet the 2035 goal, “This is really a question for ASU.”

Second Nature works with colleges and universities that are part of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a group of universities that pledged to harness the capability and responsibility of higher education to work diligently toward carbon neutrality.  

Crow was a founding signatory of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.

He is confident the University will meet the carbon neutrality goal. 

“We have a very high level of confidence that we'll be the first to do it,” Crow said, “and maybe even a higher level of confidence that other universities are lagging behind this.”

If the University’s emissions continue on the same trajectory, then it does not appear it will reach zero by 2035. But Crow said the rate of decrease will accelerate as the cost of solar batteries continues to lower. 

He said that the factors working against eliminating the University’s emissions are “waiting for technological advancements that make it more economically feasible and the continued and … upward trending growth rate of the University.”

Solar batteries are currently too expensive to be used at a university-wide level, which Crow himself admitted. Experts are still debating the time frame for when large-capacity batteries for storing solar energy will become economically feasible. 

“Depending on who you ask, we’re somewhere from five and 15 years away from it being a huge part of our utility blend,” Micah Kenfield, a sustainability programs coordinator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said, “That’ll be a huge change in and of itself.”

If the cost of solar batteries does not fall within ASU’s price range, and no other feasible technologies emerge, the University will instead use carbon offsets to reach its goals.

“We would rather put any available money now into doing as much renewable energy as we can,” Dalrymple said. “And then when we get to 2025, we will have a pool of carbon credits … and we'll use those, and we'll have to purchase and develop other ones.”

But the use of carbon credits offsets to counteract greenhouse gas emissions is controversial among sustainability experts because the impact of offsets is difficult to measure quantitatively.

“It’s like buying indulgences,” said Gregg Marland, one of the first scientists to do research on carbon offsets in the 1970s. “Whatever sins you commit, you pay God to forgive you.”

One reason the science behind offsets is not concrete is that it is difficult to prove that trees planted deliberately to increase carbon sequestration in the environment would not have grown on their own anyway. 

Marland, an adjunct research professor at Appalachian State University, said that while carbon offsets may be a short-term solution, completely eliminating emissions at the University will require significant changes and a clear plan of action.

“We should know what we can control and how are we going to (reduce emissions),” he said. “Instead of just broad goals for carbon neutrality, I think we should have metrics.”

But in 2015, ASU’s comprehensive, specific and metric-based goals in the 2011 sustainability plan were replaced with broader, nonquantitative goals for carbon neutrality.

No quantitative metrics

University Sustainability Practices is currently operating without a publicly available plan of action. 

Dalrymple said USP will probably not design another comprehensive, quantitative document of goals and actions because, “Everything in ASU … changes so fast that we can’t even complete something like this and print it before it needs to be changed already.”

Instead, the department wants to eventually put progress information directly on its University goals and vision page

But the Climate Commitment that Crow signed lists two steps. The first step reads, “Develop a comprehensive Climate Action Plan.” It goes on to instruct participating universities to “resubmit the climate action plan not less frequently than every five years.”

Dalrymple has introduced new sustainability goals to replace the 2011 goals that are simpler and less narrowly defined, with the exception of the carbon neutrality goal. Quantitative goals for solid waste, wastewater and active engagement were abandoned.

The new goals were shaped by the acquisition of new information, new technology and a rapidly expanding campus, according to Dalrymple. 

But as of this reporting, little progress data has been added to the University Sustainability Goals and vision webpage.

Other universities of similar square-footage and enrollment to ASU proactively publish comprehensive plans of action to reach sustainability goals. These universities also partner with Second Nature and signed the University Presidents’ Climate Commitment 

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, updates its almost 90-page sustainability plan every five years. In its 2015 document, the UIUC’s sustainability team provided updates on its progress and disclaimed whether or not it had met prior goals. 

Part of UIUC’s sustainability plan is a no-net growth policy that does not allow spatial growth, a policy that Dalrymple said ASU has no plans to adopt.

“You can get more and more energy-efficient as a campus, but if your buildings are twice as efficient as they used to be, but you have twice as many of them, you haven’t actually decreased your footprint,” Kenfield said.

University of Illinois at Chicago operates separately from UIUC but has a similar sustainability plan and practices. 

UIC operates by a 37-page plan, and it plans to update the document every half-decade until 2050. UIC also partnered with a data analysis company to project its estimated emissions into the future, something that ASU hasn’t done in any of its reports.

Both UIC and UIUC employ more staff than ASU in their operational sustainability offices, despite their smaller campus sizes and enrollments.

UIC and UIUC aim to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible before their goal dates. If they cannot reduce their emissions to zero, they will, similarly to ASU, purchase carbon offsets to nullify their carbon footprint. 

ASU’s 2011 sustainability plan describes carbon offsets as a “last resort” in achieving carbon neutrality. With help from outside organizations, Dalrymple said the University will plant enough carbon-reducing trees in the Phoenix area to offset the amount of carbon it emits.

But Marland warned that universities cannot become dependent on offsets and need to act diligently to reduce their emissions in order to reduce the effects of climate change.

“(Carbon offsets) can truly help us transition from where we are now to where we would like to be,” he said. “It’s not the answer in the end, but it can be part of the transition.”

While Dalrymple and Crow are confident that the University will fully adopt renewable energy use before 2035 and only use carbon offsets as a last resort, it is unclear exactly what the University is doing to expand renewables due to the lack of a comprehensive and qualitative plan.

"It's a constant challenge because ASU has continued to grow and and I expect that's going to continue to keep growing," Dalrymple said. "I don't think it's insurmountable, but it sure makes it very clear. You're trying to build the plane while you're flying it."

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated that the 2011 Strategic Plan for Sustainability Practices and Operations was available online and that no progress data had been added. It also stated an incorrect change in percentage of Scope 1 emissions.


Reach the reporter at mrstelli@asu.edu or follow @mollystellino on Twitter.

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