Mary Whitney, MPPM, PhD, Chatham’s Director of University Sustainability, is an Ohio native who has lived in Pittsburgh since 1982, spending the last 15 years in environmental education, working primarily with citizens, teachers and their students.
As sustainability director for Chatham’s campuses, she leads collaboration on sustainability practices at the university, works to help Chatham meet its carbon neutrality goals, and teaches systems and societal transitions in the Falk School of Sustainability and Environment. Thanks in large part to Mary’s leadership, Chatham is recognized as one of the top five universities in the world for sustainability as measured by The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System™ (STARS).
We sat down with Dr. Whitney to discuss the state of sustainability at Chatham and her role in advancing the University’s goal of carbon neutrality.
Q: How did you get interested in the field of sustainability?
A: I grew up in the country, free to roam and enjoy nature. As I got older and the strip mines got closer and closer to my home, I saw the damage that was being done to the environment, including the farms and woods around my house. It was then that I began to realize that our energy needs were going to completely overwhelm the natural world that I love so much. I started looking at ways to make energy hurt the world less. Sustainability is exactly that – the ability to sustain ourselves on this planet without overwhelming the planet’s ability to provide us with good living conditions.
Q: Why is it important for a university like Chatham to become carbon neutral?
A: Carbon neutrality is the goal of balancing out an institution’s carbon emissions with reductions and purchasing green power, etc. Chatham’s goal is now to be more than carbon neutral – we are working to have zero-net energy. In other words, we want to make as much green power as we use. We also are looking at net-positive energy, where we make more green power than we use, and put that out onto the grid to improve conditions for everyone.
Q: Please describe what you believe are the top priorities for Chatham in terms of reaching carbon neutrality in 2025.
A: We do annual greenhouse gas audits to get a good idea of where we are in terms of our institutional carbon and methane emissions. Over half of our annual emissions come from our electric use, since the grid in our region is primarily coal. So we are prioritizing electrical efficiency across all campuses – installing LED lighting in all buildings and outdoors, adding motion sensors to turn off lights, and more. These are all very simple-to-implement strategies. Our next largest source of emissions is our transportation – both the campus fleet and also the cars belonging to faculty, staff and students. To address this, we have added shuttles to move more people per trip, given everyone a free bus pass, connected our shuttles to the bus way, provided bike rentals and a bike repair shop, offered car-sharing, and more. There is more to be done, and it will take more than just Chatham working to solve that problem – it’s a public policy problem in many ways.
Q: It stands to reason that as a University increases its physical footprint – sheer area, number of students – its carbon emissions footprint would increase as well. Yet it seems that the reverse happened here – as we grew and expanded, our carbon footprint shrank. How did that happen?
A: That’s close – what has happened is that we have reduced our net CO2 emissions. We went from 8,705 tonnes of gross CO2 emissions in 2007 to 14,573 in 2015, which is an increase of 67 percent, much of that due to increased electric and fuel use during the construction of the Eden Hall campus. But our net emissions went from 7,246 tonnes to 5,751 tonnes in the same timeframe – a reduction of 20%. This is due to our extensive composting program, forest preservation on our campuses, purchasing renewable energy credits for our electricity use, and making our own solar electricity and solar hot water.
We look at emissions as a ratio to the number of students or the total square footage of our campuses as a way to measure how we are doing over time while taking growth into account. For example, between 2007 and 2015, we saw a 14 percent increase in student body, as well as a 14 percent increase in our campus square footage, due to new construction and purchases of existing buildings. Yet at the same time, we showed a 32 percent reduction in electric use. This is because we have designed in the latest in green building technology for any new construction, and have made as many energy efficiency upgrades as we can to existing buildings. We expect to see continued reductions as we enter into our first full year of solar electric production at Eden Hall.
Q: What are the top three programs being conducted by Chatham from a sustainability standpoint?
A: We look at our operations, our academics and our engagement when we measure our efforts. In operations, our energy efficiency program has been ongoing since 2007, and we have been buying green power since 2000. Our compost program was one of the first for an urban campus, and we have committed to using all compostable products in our dining operations.
In academics, we have an entire school – the Falk School – devoted to sustainability. Here we are able to take everything we’ve learned and share it with the world. We have our campuses as living and learning sustainability labs, our faculty has expertise and shares research for sustainable systems, and our students get to put it all into practice.
My current favorite public engagement project is a joint project between the Black Student Union, Parkhurst Dining Services, Zipcar and 412 Food Rescue. This great program was designed by the students of BSU to rescue food that would otherwise go to waste for people in the community – a great sustainability project! Parkhurst provides the food, 412 Food Rescue organizes the locations for donations, Zipcar provides free car-sharing for student rescue drivers, and students give their weekend mornings to collect and deliver food. Chatham’s Green Fund pays for other expenses, like containers.
Q: Chatham is one of the highest ranked universities in the world for STARS, what does this mean and why does it matter?
A: STARS is a sustainability ranking system developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The system’s purpose is to provide a consistent and cohesive way to track, share and benchmark sustainability initiatives. It is designed specifically for universities and looks at sustainability across academics, operations, engagement with communities, and planning/administration.
Any level of STARS recognizes a significant sustainability achievement, and having a gold rating means that we have made a concerted and effective transformation of our university for sustainability. The recognition is public, and that matters more than just having bragging rights. What truly matters most about the rating is that it proves to others that transforming an institution for sustainability is not a crazy future-dream but a reality, achieved through patience and a deep commitment, more than deep pockets or temporary enthusiasm.
Q: Chatham is ranked second among sustainable master’s level universities in the 2016 Sustainable Campus Index. How did the university achieve such a high ranking and what does this mean to students, faculty and staff?
A: Chatham has been working on sustainability from an educational standpoint for over 25 years, since the founding of the Rachel Carson Institute. We’ve been working to transform our own institutional practice for almost as long, beginning with our first green power purchases in 2000. This long-term commitment lets us make continuous improvement, and we build each year on previous achievements. We take our time to do what we think is right, review and track our progress to see if we’re meeting our own expectations, and keep working on incorporating sustainability into every part of the campus.
A powerful reason for our success is that we have a solid core of sustainability knowledge across our entire community. It is a huge help that we have attracted so many people who include sustainability in their own work, research and everyday practice – we depend on the students, faculty and staff here to be our success in sustainability.
Q: What do you want students to take away from their experience at Chatham?
A: Understanding how environmental, social and technical systems interact with each other, and how to make changes in those systems. Combine that with lots of opportunities to practice, and the confidence to go out and make those changes!