SustainNU is on track to finalize the creation of a new Strategic Sustainability Plan this fall, setting new goals and benchmarks for Northwestern’s emissions reductions, conservation, resource management, and more.
But some students say the University could work towards broader climate change reforms.
The first sustainability plan, published in 2017, set a number of goals to promote renewable energy and a more sustainable environment on campus over a five-year period, ending in 2021. It has five distinct program areas: Built Environment, Transport, Conservation of Resources Power, Experience Learning and Communication and Engagement.
A steering committee consisting of administrators and senior University officials oversees the pursuit of these areas and the working groups of students, faculty and staff across NU assigned to each.
The successful implementation of the SSP is recognized nationally. In 2020, NU became the first university to be awarded the US Department of Energy’s Environmental Protection Agency and ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year award — the Sustainable Excellence Award, the award it will receive again in 2021 and 2022. Greg Kozak, director of sustainability, said NU has a responsibility to uphold its green reputation with a new and fresh SSP.
“We need to play a leadership role,” said Kozak. “We have brilliant minds on campus — students, faculty and staff. And we are seen as leaders in this field, so we must do everything we can to prepare the University to be successful from a sustainability perspective.”
Developing the next sustainability plan
SustainNU is likely to finalize and unveil the plan, which has been in development since April 2021, later this fall, Kozak said. The university met or exceeded most of the material goals set out in the first plan, he said, and was considering setting more ambitious goals for the new SSP.
Building on the past five years puts sustainNU in a position to act with valuable insights, according to Julie Cahillane, associate director of sustainability.
“We have something to compare,” said Cahillane. “Now we can see what we’ve done, where the other institutions are now and where we want to separate ourselves.”
Until sustainNU releases the plan, Kozak said no details were set. But the model plan currently under discussion has seven program areas, he said: Energy and Emissions; Transport and Mobility; Waste and Procurement; Buildings and Infrastructure; Water and Ecology; Academic, Experiential Learning and Innovation; and Communication and Engagement.
The new plan will likely also have a stronger focus on developing goals using a social lens and examining how racial equality and justice are intertwined with sustainability at NU, according to SustainNU Program Coordinator Cria Kay.
“For this one, we really wanted to make sure that we met with all of the campus community to make sure this plan was implemented and that the people who were going to implement it were involved and had a say in how this would look on campus,” Kay said.
Concerns over the continued practice of NU engagement
However, some students said the University would be better served with a different approach to public engagement. Weinberg Senior Jack Jordan, who helped organize the Environmental Justice Generation event on Earth Day, wrote his senior thesis on the history of climate action planning in Evanston. He said he saw a critical break between NU and its surrounding community in developing sustainability goals.
The result, he said, was a lack of awareness and investment in the cause among the wider campus community and Evanston local residents.
The university does not publicly develop goals, Jordan said, and details are only disclosed after the plan is officially approved and published – leaving the general public with no opportunity to voice their opinions at forums or town halls. Jordan said NU should be more transparent and accessible in the development process than it already is.
“The main thing I’d like to see is greater opportunity for public participation, greater opportunity for students, faculty, workers at Northwestern, whoever you are, to have an opinion on the plan,” Jordan said.
People would be more amenable to the plan if they could take more ownership, Jordan said. Introducing public listening sessions and other broad engagement tactics could have significant benefits for NU’s own sustainability initiatives, he said.
According to Kay, this time sustainNU provides more energy for public involvement. They met with a wide range of stakeholders including Evanston and Chicago officials, Associated Student Government Sustainability Committee members, targeted alumni, sustainability-oriented student groups and local community organizations, among others.
SustainNU is accessible to anyone via the contact information on its website, but it does not have a large open forum. The team used a deliberate engagement approach to strengthen the plan’s equity and inclusion efforts for each area of the program, Kay said.
“Hearing people’s opinions about how they want to see Northwestern change and how they want this institutionalized is very important,” Kay said. “Without some kind of concrete plan, it’s not always as prioritized as it should be.”
Activists say Universities need broader climate change reforms
In addition to public engagement, students such as Junior Communications and Fossil-Free NU organizer Lucy London have concerns about how the SSP fits into the big picture. London said he was concerned the University was only following through with sustainability goals to improve its image, as part of its endowment was still invested in polluting the fossil fuel industry.
Divestment from fossil fuels is the single most meaningful step NU can take towards sustainability, says London, but only the Board of Trustees has the power to do so. They say until that happens, the SSP will not be enough to move the University in the right direction.
“I don’t think it achieves what is needed,” London said. “It feels more like a cop-out, like this we do so that our institutions can continue to run as they please. But really, that all has to change.”
Ultimately, sustainNU could achieve significant gains for the sustainability of NU’s operations, says London, but the University is doing nothing at this time to address or acknowledge the critical issues with its broader institutional sustainability.
Jordan agrees that the Board of Trustees’ investment is damaging to the progressive and environmentally conscious reputation that the University aims to build. Until NU divests from those industries, he said, neither of these measures will have any effect in the long term.
“You can’t claim to accelerate climate action while simultaneously having millions of dollars in fossil fuels,” Jordan said. “It doesn’t take a scientist to figure it out.”
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— The Green Office Program encourages NU offices to adopt more sustainable practices
— SustainNU organizes a Repair & Reuse Fair to promote campus sustainability
— NU students and faculty advocate for sustainability improvement in campus buildings