2020 was a very challenging year with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting everyone. How has this life-changing global event impacted you and the Oregon State University Sustainability Office? Is there a silver lining for you?
I'm proud of my team in the Sustainability Office, and really for our entire larger department of Capital Planning and Development, for how well everyone seems to have adapted to the remote work environment. While it appears that people have adapted professionally very well, I know it comes at a personal cost for many. In the Sustainability Office, we are as busy as ever, shifting the time we spent on things like in person events to more long range planning, policy development, digital outreach and a focus on efficiency projects and renewable energy infrastructure. It seems like we have filled up the "free" time with more than we can take on, but I find this often happens with values-driven work. And there have been silver linings in things like our carbon footprint - our institution wide carbon emissions are down 13% since last year, mostly due to the proactive measures taken by our Facilities Services team in cooperation with the Sustainability Office. We have proactively and carefully adjusted heating and cooling settings in buildings to save a tremendous amount of energy, totaling over $1.5M in energy savings in just nine months. In fact, we produced a short, informal video about this work. Much of this fine tuning will result in savings that persist after the pandemic. And of course I think most of us have a new perspective on the need to travel, which will also reduce emissions in the long run.
As you know, WOHESC and many of our partner campuses on the Program Committee are prioritizing DEI initiatives as an intersectional and integral part of their work. Can you tell us what this looks like on the Oregon State University campus?
We have outstanding leadership at OSU in our Office of Institutional Diversity, the Equal Opportunity and Access department and many others doing this work. In 2020, core sustainability partners of Campus Recycling, Community Engagement & Leadership and the Sustainability Office came together to draft a diversity, equity, inclusion and justice plan for our groups to finalize in spring of 2021 and serve as a guide for all of our work. For several years, we have included social justice in our training and orientation process, as well as the continual learning process we provide all year to our residence hall Eco-Reps. With OSU requiring social justice training for all incoming students, faculty and staff now, it give us a good platform to do the more advanced work within our groups!
We saw that Oregon State made a commitment to be carbon neutral by 2025. Can you give us a preview of how you plan to get there?
There are many complexities of our path to carbon neutrality, but it can be boiled down to a few key elements we plan to implement in the next 5 years or so:
In the long run, our plan is to be ready for wave energy, small scale nuclear, smart power grids and other emerging technologies to minimize our reliance on carbon offsets.
Including your above carbon neutral commitments, which is awesome - what other initiatives and plans are you most excited about moving the needle forward on sustainability in 2021 and beyond?
So much of what we do centers on equitable reduction of carbon emissions, but I'm also excited to get back on track to zero waste and more sustainable purchasing practices. OSU made national news in 2016 for our award winning Eco2Go reusable food container program. We've temporarily stopped the program due to the pandemic, but hope we can get it going again even before the pandemic is over since the issue is really with customer perception, not with the actual safety of the program. It had to be sanitary and food safe before, so it would meet all pandemic requirements. In addition to waste reduction and purchasing, I'm excited about the diversity, equity, inclusion and justice work I mentioned above! On a personal level, and because of long-ago family connections, I hope to engage more of my work and personal time connecting more deeply with local indigenous populations.
The planning committee behind the Washington Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference continues to work hard behind the scenes to make sure that each year, WOHESC brings attendees timely, relevant, inspiring and actionable content. We had the chance to talk with PC team member Adam Maurer- Sustainability Coordinator at Seattle Colleges and now host campus for the 2022 conference - on his vision for progressing sustainability initiatives on Seattle campuses and beyond. Keep reading to hear more from Adam, and make sure to join us for our first VIRTUAL WOHESC conference February 11-12, 2021!
1. South Seattle College will be the first community college to host the joint Washington Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference (WOHESC) - can you tell us more about why this campus is a good fit to host WOHESC?
We at South Seattle College and Seattle Colleges are delighted to be hosting WOHESC. Colleges and universities are student-focused, but since being involved in community colleges a few years ago, I have experienced an increased awareness of student and community needs. Our average student age is around 28 years old at Seattle Colleges, so when we think about how urgent climate change, environmental degradation, race relations, income inequality, etc. are, it is important that we are educating everyone in our community. Borrowing from a recent Washington State Board Community and Technical Colleges statement, "[c]ommunity and technical colleges are, after all, democracy's colleges. We were built from the idea that people from all backgrounds and incomes should have the right to higher education. We were created in the knowledge that education empowers people, builds better lives and creates stronger communities. Our students are the key to building a bright future for America, with a stronger and more inclusive economy." With this year's theme being people focused, I think it's only fitting WOHESC is being held at a community college that educates and inspires people from all walks of life, belief systems, origins, and identities.
2. As Sustainability Coordinator for Seattle Colleges, how are you leading the charge for SC's sustainability efforts? Where do you draw inspiration from, what sources do you look to for the next advancements in sustainability?
My position is founded in and continues to focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation. Being a state college, we have ambitious GHG reduction targets, including a 45% reduction from baseline by 2030. Honestly, colleges and universities buildings and infrastructure, especially community colleges, have been underfunded for decades. We are trying to put together a comprehensive assessment and plan in order to position ourselves well for future state funding. Currently, this is where my inspiration comes from as well, as Washington State is a leader in climate change policy. The laws and mandates from the local and state entities are ambitious, but they are also grounded in science and provide me with buttress when speaking with internal stakeholders who may otherwise think these goals are my own ambiguous ones. In this realm, the next advancements and innovation must focus on non-carbon, affordable, building heating systems. We must somehow transition our buildings from oil and natural gas mostly, to electric, but it is not a simple switch over.
3. With sustainability work being so highly collaborative, how are Seattle Colleges weaving sustainability through every facet of campus planning, management and operations to ensure that all are working cohesively towards multiple campuses sustainable missions?
Seattle Colleges comprises three separate colleges and several satellite campuses. Collaboration has been challenging for all efforts throughout the years due to our unique district structure, but current financial and social pressures have required us to build community more than we ever have. This has materialized most recently in a district-wide, collaborative formulation of our 2017-2023 Seattle Colleges Strategic Plan. There are many aspects of sustainability weaved into this plan, including a heavy focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion. Additionally, we have committed to completing AASHE STARS reports for each one of our colleges separately every three years, and have ambitious goals to increase our scores each submission.
4. What is on the horizon for you and what are you most excited about moving forward with Seattle Colleges sustainability efforts?
As I mentioned, we have several new local and state mandates around building energy efficiency and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are forcing us to think collaboratively, creatively, and with urgency. Colleges and universities like to move slowly. We like to let the private sector test technologies and processes out to work out the issues. We're typically not early adopters or necessarily "cutting edge" in our own operations, but these new laws and mandates are forcing us to come together and formulate a plan of action. Significant GHG reduction is not only necessary as a college, community, and society, but I believe it also leads to more collaborative, resilient, and dynamic communities.
Kathleen recently joined the Washington Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference (WOHESC) Program Committee to collaborate on and to add input and impact to our 2021 conference program. Her role on the WOHESC PC Team includes sharing regional campus priority program topics and content, recommending stand out speakers, case studies and regional initiatives and helping to drive and promote campus involvement with the conference.
She joined Central Washington University in January 2020 in the newly created Sustainability Coordinator role. She has been tasked with developing a comprehensive sustainability vision and plan for the university, while also leading engagement and outreach initiatives. Kathleen lived in Germany for the last four years working on a PhD in Sustainability Science and was excited to take a higher education sustainability position closer to her hometown of Olympia, Washington.
What do you see as our biggest challenge in sustainability work?
I find it challenging at times to balance enthusiastic optimism for sustainability progress with soul-crushing pessimism about the state of our planet. How do we build sustainable communities, encourage activism and propel sustainability progress while being completely overwhelmed at the scope of the problem and the scale of action required? It is easy to face decision fatigue, eco-anxiety, and burnout in this field, so I challenge myself to localize sustainability, identify inroads for participation, and focus on healthy and clean communities.
Advice for people just getting into sustainability work?
Diversify your knowledge and skills base and embrace being a generalist. Be as comfortable talking about GHG emissions and waste reduction as you are talking about stormwater, food insecurity, roof loads for solar panels, and curriculum development. I've found that being knowledgeable about a range of topics opens doors to a greater diversity of conversations and more opportunities to influence campus policies and initiatives.
The most fun you've had in sustainability work?
I recently attended the UNLEASH Innovation Lab in Shenzhen, China, with 1,000 young sustainability leaders from around the globe. It was a fun, intense and energizing week of developing implementable solutions to the SDGs. I walked away from that event reassured that the world has the knowledge, resources, and skills to move towards a sustainable future, if only we can figure out how to remove the economic and political roadblocks.
Interview reposted from WAHESC.