Executive Summary

Over the course of a year and a half, Columbia’s three main campuses collaborated in a facilitated process that for the first time centralized sustainability planning at the University. To pilot this cross-campus exercise, the efforts focused first on building a sustainability plan for the Morningside campus. The Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) helped shape the goals and strategies set forth for Morningside, and leveraged the process to align their own campus goals where possible, as outlined in their sections of this Plan.

Columbia University’s Morningside campus spans 36 acres, with over 250 buildings, nearly 27,000 graduate and undergraduate students, and just under 9,000 employees. As one of the largest private employers in New York City, Columbia has long been a top destination for commuters traveling in from across the tristate area, and a significant waste generator and energy consumer. With such a sizeable profile in the city comes great responsibility to understand, in measurable terms, the environmental footprint of Columbia’s vast operation, and take action to mitigate its impact. Columbia recognizes it must lead by example, in both its academic and administrative spheres, to shape the local and national sustainability conversation and promote sustainability leadership on campus.

The University has demonstrated long-standing sustainability leadership in the academic sphere through the Earth Institute. It also has supported a number of impressive initiatives underway for years to make the University’s operations more sustainable, including a steady commitment as one of the original participants in NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s University Carbon Challenge. Additionally, students, faculty, and staff have helped lead the charge in personal and department-level sustainability initiatives campus-wide, strengthening the University’s commitment and enriching its success.  

The sustainability planning process that resulted in this Plan grew from the University’s Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment, and Reporting System (STARS) Gold reporting process, and the partnership between leadership of University Facilities and Operations and the Earth Institute faculty in 2015. Recognizing that the University’s operational initiatives to advance sustainability were making an impact, there was strong support to create a roadmap toward a more sustainable Columbia.

Developing our Plan required two things: a set of principles to guide the long-term sustainability vision at Columbia, and a sustainability plan that set measurable goals in key operational areas that affect the University’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emission profile.

In September 2016, President Bollinger endorsed the University’s first set of Sustainability Principles. Columbia is committed to following these principles in all facets of planning and operations to improve environmental performance; ensure a healthy community; and contribute to local, regional, and global solutions. As part of this commitment, Columbia commits and strives to

  • advance Columbia’s core educational, research, and outreach missions to demonstrate its leadership around the world;
  • plan, develop, implement, and measure strategic sustainability initiatives; and
  • foster a culture of sustainability.

Now, in April 2017, aligned with the 47th annual celebration of Earth Day, Columbia announces the University’s first Sustainability Plan. This Plan serves as a strategic blueprint to build upon Columbia’s past accomplishments in advancing sustainability and to accelerate these initiatives into the future.  

This Plan was created collaboratively by dozens of members of the campus community, including department representatives, facilities managers, faculty, and students. Through a number of work sessions over the course of one year, participants compiled information on the current state of the campus, best practices from peer institutions, and opportunities that Columbia is uniquely positioned to pursue. The University then consulted internal and external experts in energy, buildings, transportation, waste management, and procurement to develop each section of this Plan.

The end result is a plan that charts a course for maximum impact. The goals, strategies, and milestones set forth in this Plan over the next three years (2017–2020) are operationally focused around three key areas that contribute to the University’s environmental and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions impact at the Morningside campus: Building Energy Supply and Demand, Transportation, and Waste. All goals are interrelated with respect to Columbia’s larger, aspirational GHG emissions reduction goal.

Columbia has committed to the following goals:

  • Update GHG emission inventories already prepared for fiscal year (FY) 2006 through 2016 to more fully conform to internationally accepted accounting best practices. Those inventories include Scope 1 emissions related to the stationary combustion of fuels for buildings and Scope 2 emissions for purchased electricity. For this inventory boundary, start reporting annual emissions in The Climate Registry for calendar year (CY) 2017. Achieve a 35 percent absolute reduction in these types of emissions by 2020 from FY 2006.
  • For CY 2018, provide a complete, consistent, transparent, and accurate annual reporting of all relevant GHG emissions applying internationally accepted accounting and reporting best practices. Relevant emissions include all Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions and Scope 3 emissions at a minimum related to commuting, business travel, and waste from operations.
  • Set goals for reducing absolute GHG emissions for the complete GHG inventory that are transparent, ambitious, and achievable and that tie to a long-term aspirational goal to match or exceed New York City’s goal of reducing all GHG emissions by 80 percent by 2050 from 2005.
  • Develop baseline metrics for select waste streams and calculate the University’s first waste diversion rate. This will allow the University to set a waste diversion and waste-to-landfill reduction goal. Columbia will work toward the longer-term aspiration of aligning with NYC’s OneNYC waste-to-landfill goal by 2030.

This Plan is a starting point for Columbia University to enhance its global leadership in addressing the world’s most pressing and important issues. The primary focus is the environmental sustainability of the Morningside campus operations. Moving forward, Columbia will continue to work together with its campuses at the Medical Center and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which were both very involved in this initial process, to align cross-campus goals and strategies wherever possible. As the Manhattanville campus evolves, it too will be gradually incorporated into the process. As well, Columbia will look to expand the scope of areas covered by the Plan in order to create a more holistic portrait of the University’s footprint. As this is the first formalized Sustainability Plan for Columbia, a targeted, three-year, Morningside campus–specific plan has allowed the University to set effective yet reasonable goals and take subsequent actions. By 2020 Columbia will continue to build upon its foundation and set forth longer-term goals.

With this Plan, Columbia will continue to develop as a vibrant and sustainable campus for current and future generations, and to champion the actions needed to meet the global challenges of climate change.