Columbia University Releases New Sustainability Plan Outlining Actions to Reach Net Zero Emissions by 2050

The plan provides a set of operational strategies and benchmarks, grounded in science, for Columbia to achieve its ambitious sustainability goals.

April 22, 2021

Columbia University today released a new ten-year sustainability plan for its New York campuses, building on the success of its first plan released in 2017. It includes a framework of science-based strategies the University will implement in the near-term – 2021 through 2030 – to reach its ambitious long-term goal of net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. Titled “Plan 2030,” this next phase of Columbia’s sustainability mission will ensure the University takes the most meaningful immediate actions to reduce its footprint. 

Columbia has made significant commitments to address climate change, most notably establishing a Climate School and formalizing a non-investment policy in gas, oil, and coal companies. Plan 2030 represents the University's operational path to aggressive climate action.  

“Plan 2030 aligns Columbia’s campus operations with our longstanding academic leadership in sustainability,” said David Greenberg, Executive Vice President for University Facilities and Operations. “We’re taking a reduction-first approach, focusing on systematically mitigating campus emissions through strategic electrification and transitioning as swiftly as possible from brown power to 100 percent zero-emission electricity.” 

What’s New: Science-based Targets 

Plan 2030 sets science-based interim emissions reduction targets to reach net zero, created in conjunction with Columbia’s own Earth Institute scientists and faculty, and using guidance from the Science Based Target (SBT) initiative and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  

Science-based targets provide a clearly defined trajectory to reduce GHG emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. More than a thousand public entities globally are adopting SBT to translate the latest climate science from global calculations to institution-specific targets. The targets outlined in Plan 2030, calculated from the base year of 2019, align all Columbia’s campuses at the highest level to take immediate action on GHG reduction efforts: a 42 percent reduction by 2030, 63 percent by 2035, and 100 percent by 2050. 

“We’ve consulted with experts at the forefront of climate science to set science-based targets,” said Jessica Prata, Assistant Vice President for the Office of Sustainability at Columbia University. “The trajectory toward net zero emissions mapped out in Plan 2030 puts Columbia on an aggressive course forward and is in line with leading institutions on a global scale.” 

Key Takeaways 

Emissions-reduction strategies in Plan 2030 include the electrification of campus buildings – enabling campus to eventually run entirely on zero-emission electricity – in addition to decarbonizing Columbia’s transportation fleet, reducing commuter emissions, and minimizing business-related air travel. Columbia also commits to creating a policy that prioritizes sustainability in every aspect of the construction and design process, from refreshes to new buildings.  

The University will align with New York City’s goal to send zero waste to landfills, in part by instating a comprehensive sustainable events policy and coordinated sustainable procurement efforts. Plan 2030 also includes strategies to enhance student sustainability education and provide access to the campus as a “living lab,” as well as seeking opportunities to support equitable water distribution, conservation, and awareness. 

Sustainability Planning at Columbia 

Plan 2030 is the result of a multi-year and multi-departmental collaboration led by the Office of Sustainability in partnership with the Senior Sustainability Advisory Committee, made up of climate researchers, scholars, and operations specialists. Six working groups comprising students, staff, and faculty from the Morningside, Manhattanville, Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) campuses formed the six focus areas of Plan 2030: Campus Energy; Sustainable Transportation; Responsible Design and Construction; Culture Change and Campus as a Living Lab; Responsible Materials Management; and Water Conservation and Capture. 

“The power of Plan 2030 is that it was a collaborative effort between experts in each of the fields it covers,” said Alex Halliday, Director for the Earth Institute and Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “Climate scientists from the Earth Institute came together with experienced Operations staff, as well as faculty and students who are the backbone of our academic enterprise and campus culture. It was, and will continue to be, a group project – the best of Columbia working together to create a sustainable future on campus and beyond.” 

Since the release of its 2017 plan, Columbia has surpassed its goal of reducing GHG emissions by 35 percent over its 2006 baseline, achieving a 41 percent reduction. Columbia has also reported its GHG emissions for four years to the Climate Registry (TCR) with third-party verification. Other accomplishments include the 100 percent transition from diesel to electric University shuttle buses, a State Recycling Leadership Award, and the creation of the Sustainable Leaders Network Workspace Certification Program – now comprising more than 200 members.  

“Columbia recognizes the immediacy of the climate crisis and takes ownership of our environmental impact,” said Scott Wright, Vice President for Campus Services. “We have a responsibility to New York City, as well as our own students and faculty – some of whom have dedicated their lives to climate research – to take this seriously, and we are honoring that commitment.”