As the U.S. Senate recently prepared to vote on legislation to fight climate change, Zack Porter stood in front of Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and posed a simple question: Why can't you do what the University of Montana has already done? Porter was referring to the university's new climate action plan, which calls to make the campus carbon neutral by 2020.
"I told them that the University of Montana has embarked on a mission to achieve carbon neutrality," says Porter, former president of UM's Climate Action NOW group. "I told them that we're working toward it right now on campuses in Montana. When is the whole state going to catch up? When is the nation going to catch up?"
Porter's question went unanswered. Days after his visit, the Senate couldn't come up with a resolution. Without the 60 votes needed, and despite efforts from lobbyists like Porter, national climate legislation was dead in the water.
While national and international climate change action has been frustratingly slow, small-scale plans are being hatched at campuses nationwide. For UM, the first real push came in 2007 when President George Dennison signed the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), pledging the school to climate change action. In accordance with that commitment, UM students, faculty and staff conducted an extensive catalogue of all campus greenhouse gas emissions and released the 2008 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report. This April, UM took it one step further, unveiling its first climate action plan.
The detailed, 96-page document offers a multitude of solutions, some involving huge investment costs and others requiring a wholesale shift in how the university conducts its business. Though the plan was co-authored primarily by Cherie Peacock, UM's sustainability coordinator for the Office of Sustainability, and Erica Bloom, the sustainability coordinator for the Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM) Sustainability Center, it involved a mass of consultants: technical and educational groups made up of engineering, forestry, conservation, alternative energy, business and transportation experts from on and off campus, plus student environmental groups. The plan suggests sharp greenhouse gas reductions, with the ultimate goal to make UM carbon neutral in 10 years.
Meeting the plan's target won't be easy. In fact, some critics question the university's approach to reaching the goal. With those concerns in mind, we analyze UM's more complex challenges, and detail possible solutions—some of which the university is already considering.
A month after the climate action plan became public, UM finished construction on its first designated green building. The Payne Family Native American Center is a striking 300,000 square-foot, $8.6 million structure designed with two distinct qualities: It uses American Indian culture as inspiration for the architecture, and it's built according to sustainable standards of Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), a third-party certification system created by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council.
The Native American Center received a LEED gold rating—the second highest designation next to platinum—in green design categories like water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. It's built with a ground source cooling and heating system that uses the storage capacity of the soil to cool the center in the summer and heat it in the winter. The building itself is framed with steel and uses structural insulated panels (SIP) made of plywood and foam from Belgrade, Mont. Recycled sunflower shells comprise the interior walls, larch wood spans the floors, and 12 pine poles reclaimed from the Blackfoot River support the mezzanine.
The center represents the university's emphasis on green building. In 2009, UM established a policy that any new campus structure needed to be built at least to LEED silver certification. The climate action plan adds to that policy, suggesting all existing UM buildings be brought up to "stringent energy efficiency standards" through LEED EBOM (Existing Buildings, Operation, and Maintenance) certification.
Constructing more buildings, green or not, increases greenhouse gas emissions. Almost a third of greenhouse gases worldwide can be attributed to the construction and building sectors. UM's climate action plan points out that energy consumption for building-related infrastructure "results in the largest climate impact attributed to the University of Montana." In addition, the university's 2008 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report found a steady increase in emissions since 2000, and it attributes part of that rise directly to construction of new campus buildings.
President Dennison has received strong criticism for squeezing more buildings onto campus than any other UM president, adding 1.3 million square feet over the last 20 years. Eliminating even more open space—whether it is the University Golf Course or grassy squares between buildings—also leaves a lot to be desired.
A more immediate problem may be UM's reliance on LEED certification. In April, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry—designer for the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, among others—told Bloomberg Businessweek and PBS, "A lot of LEEDs are given for bogus stuff. A lot of the things they do really don't save energy."
Fred Bernstein, architect critic and contributor to The New York Times, backed Gehry up in his May design blog by writing, "Far too often, LEED gives eco-cred to buildings that, in many cases, shouldn't have been built." He offers the example of Las Vegas' CityCenter Complex, which consists of up to 18 million square feet of air-conditioned rooms in the Mojave Desert. Bernstein's point: There are no square footage limits for LEED, which means buildings can be excessive, or use more material than necessary even though the material is considered sustainable.
Other aspects of the LEED point system are questionable. Jobe Bernier, a LEED certified architectural designer for A&E Architects in Missoula, helped designer Eric Simonsen and architect Daniel Glenn on the Native American Center. He supports LEED, in general, but says some of the criticisms are well founded.
"There definitely are ways to manipulate the system," Bernier says. "You can do things like get points for a green power purchase where you have funds in your project for green power and that [money] just goes to an agency that develops green power. That one seems to me a bit like a point chase."