Half Empty or Half Full?
It’s not news—climate change is real—but the matter gets more urgent by the day. Using state-of-the-art tech and cutting-edge measures, NYU is innovating when it comes to saving energy on its campuses and developing sustainable practices to be used everywhere. Is it all too little, too late? An argument for optimism.
By Andrew Postman
Illustrations by Carolyn Figel
It’s the kind of story that happens in real life every ...
No, that’s not right. It happens more like once every ...
Oh, who are we kidding? It never happens.
A big institution achieves a massive goal. OK, that occurs sometimes. In less time than agreed upon? Maybe once in a while. But in half the time? Like five years earlier than promised?
Yeah. No. Never.
Yet that’s exactly what NYU accomplished, an exercise in commitment, skill, and efficiency. In 2007, the university promised New York City it would cut carbon emissions by 30 percent in 10 years. Because the vast majority of the school’s energy use comes from its buildings, that meant an extensive analysis and upgrade to structures that needed it. And that was challenging since most of the university’s stock is old and inefficient: at least 60 percent are 60 years old, with many of those more than a century old. The past design of buildings is often not ideal for the present or future.
If you don’t remember reading in 2017—the promised date—about whether NYU had (or hadn’t) reached the promised goal, that’s because it was old news. They’d already done so.
In 2012. Half the time.
“We want to do our part, and our community wants us to do our part, to address the problem,” says Cecil Scheib, NYU’s assistant vice president for sustainability. He returned to the university in 2018 after six years at the Building Resiliency Task Force for the City of New York and the Urban Green Council; before that, from 2007 to 2012, Scheib was NYU’s director of energy and sustainability.
While it’s heartening to know that the will, skill, and execution were there to achieve the lofty emission–cutting goal, what makes it exciting is how quickly the fixes paid for themselves. There was a one- to four-year payback, with much of that coming from efficiency improvements in buildings, including the switch from oil to gas. In the five years it took to reach the goal, the university saved approximately $30 million on energy; each year since, it has saved about $15 million. “The business case is incredible,” Scheib says.
The university is pursuing similar improvements on so many levels (through academics, enterprises led by faculty, campus-wide initiatives) and from so many stakeholders (students, faculty, staff, provost, the Office of Sustainability, the President’s Office). Indeed, the efforts are so abundant—more than 900 sustainability-related courses; 120 Green Grants awarded since 2007, with almost four of every five institutionalized; NYU’s new hub for media, technology, and the arts at 370 Jay Street being recognized with LEED Platinum certification—it might almost be easier to identify who around campus is not involved.
The Department of Environmental Studies recently launched the Center for Environmental and Animal Protection, a research unit that examines the nexus of animal agriculture and climate change. The Frank J. Guarini Center on Environmental, Energy, and Land Use Law at the School of Law offers programs that are open to the public and provides cutting-edge analysis on such innovative citywide initiatives as building credit-trading programs (i.e., if you and I both have to cut x amount of energy from our buildings, but I can do so at a lower cost than you can, then let me make my cuts and yours, and you pay me). The College for Global Public Health offers a concentration in environmental public health sciences, which teaches ways to develop scalable, sustainable solutions to ecological challenges (students study, among other things, the effects of exposures to chemical and physical agents). Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business, which looks at questions like how companies can survive and thrive in an increasingly resource-deprived world, and what is the return on investment for sustainability, has recently expanded its faculty. The Tandon School of Engineering offers a bachelor’s degree in sustainable urban environments.
In the end, efforts at sustainability and energy savings must focus not merely on dealing with the waste we’ve created but also on not making so much to begin with. “One thing we’re trying to do is look at waste from a holistic perspective,” Scheib says. “How can you buy less in the first place? Everyone focuses on what you do with [your waste] after you’ve created it, but maybe they’re asking the wrong question.” For example, instead of addressing how we recycle single-serve water bottles (and, let’s be honest, half of recycling New Yorkers don’t believe their waste is being recycled anyway), we need to ask why we need single-use plastic bottles for water to begin with, particularly when there’s good, free drinking water all over campus. “Look at things from first principles,” Scheib says.
Food is another commodity that goes to great waste, a major concern for many of the students. Scheib says that “some of the finest minds on the planet in both environmental science and food studies are here at NYU, and they’ve [been saying] that menu selection is one of the most impactful things we can do”—choosing options that are lower on the food chain, without sacrificing taste or nutritional value.
The university is constantly growing more aware, too. “For example, we had a lot of dorm rooms that didn’t have full-length mirrors,” Scheib says. “Students go out and buy one, then at the end of the year, what are they going to do, ship a mirror home? So we have hundreds of [discarded] mirrors.” NYU’s response? “We [bulk-purchased] and installed them in the dorms.” The same goes for mini fridges—because the university is providing them, they can pick particularly energy-efficient models.
Similarly, the Zero Waste Challenge (where students put all of their non-recyclable trash in a plastic bag that they then carry around for an entire week) and the Green Apple Move Out (a campus-wide spring cleaning during which students donate unwanted items to Goodwill) help reduce wastefulness and starkly reveal to participants just how much excess there is.
That’s also a hope for the College and Career Lab’s Sustainability Track program, a joint initiative of Steinhardt’s Wallerstein Collaborative for Urban Environmental Education and the Office of Sustainability. New York City high school students come to learn about urban sustainability, NYU’s amazing cogeneration plant, and—perhaps most important of all—how to lobby (they get to meet City Council members).
Then there’s the university’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, which has aided the city’s efforts in becoming a leader in climate policy. A decade ago, the city passed groundbreaking laws requiring buildings to report their energy use; associate professor of urban science and planning Constantine Kontokosta has been a leader in analyzing the data generated, which helped to create sound policy. One of the most exciting recent developments: New York City is now considering (and expected to pass in 2019) legislation that would require buildings to reduce their emissions—a directive that no other city in the world is known to have instituted.
Despite so many remarkable people making so many remarkable efforts, another resource often seems in short supply: hope. We’ve all read the stories and statistics, seen the images of plastic washing up on shores, watched simulations of another state-sized chunk of the polar cap breaking off.
Yet there might be some rays of sunlight. It’s generally believed that since humans began using fossil fuels, as Scheib points out, “humanity emits a little more carbon than the year before. We grow a little bit. People get a little richer. We have to find new resources for energy. That has [likely] happened every year for 200-plus years.” Except . . . in 2015, 2016, and 2017, US emissions levels dropped each year, a historic occurrence. The amount rose again in 2018, and “that was the story, not the fact that in 200 years, we’ve increased carbon emissions from basically zero to about 5 billion metric tons of carbon, annually. If it was business as usual, the level would be 15 percent higher right now.” Because of the efforts of millions of people on sustainability, the creep up has been arrested.
Scheib, who manages to be both realistic and incurably upbeat, believes we may need to look at things a little differently. “The constant message about global problems gets beaten into us—[and] ignores gigantic solutions. People say, ‘Well, solar is still only 2 to 3 percent, so it doesn’t matter.’ How about the fact that 10 years ago, solar was 0.02 percent?” Scheib says.
New technologies quickly become the standard. For NYU to erect a building today and not use LED light bulbs would be a move Scheib calls “unthinkable”—yet it wasn’t long ago that not many people knew what an LED bulb was. The relationship between air quality, thermal comfort, and outcomes for the occupants of a new or renovated building is considered at the design stage because it saves money, it creates a more satisfied and higher-performing clientele, and we have the technology to do it; what once was a luxury to consider (if it was even considered at all) is now a given. Things go from strange and revolutionary to standard and expected in a remarkably short amount of time. “Can you imagine New York without Citi Bike?” asks Scheib. “It’s almost unimaginable. Yet it did not exist six years ago.”
NYU’s state-of-the-art cogeneration plant has basically reconceived how the buildings on campus work. Most people believe that in the summer, we cool buildings; in the winter, we heat them. This is what’s really happening: in the summer, you cool the incoming air to remove humidity (at least in a city with humid summers like New York’s), so it’s not too moist in the building. But that makes the air too cold for comfort, so then you reheat it, meaning you’re cooling and heating the indoor air in the summer. In the winter, you heat buildings at the perimeters, yet because so many of NYU’s big buildings are essentially cubes, the middle—where people and kitchens and computers congregate—grows too warm and you now have to air-condition the cores. This means you’re heating and cooling almost every building almost all the time.
Now NYU’s “cogen” plant sends its creations—electricity, hot water, and chilled water—out to campus buildings through piping and wires, and each building takes only what it needs of each to maintain temperate and comfortable conditions.
Are all these efforts enough? Of course not. The university’s Climate Action Plan will soon be updated with recommendations to meet NYU’s target of 50 percent energy reductions (from the original baseline) by 2025 and carbon neutrality by 2040. This entails phasing out fossil fuels in favor of electricity use, and buying clean and green power to serve the smaller, electrified load.
If we’re to succeed at addressing the crises of dire resource depletion and extreme climate change, we will need to consider the sustainability efforts that so many NYU faculty and students are immersed in, executing, and even pioneering. Fortunately, we won’t have to waste energy contorting ourselves to believe in these encouraging trends and promising evolutions: quite a few of them have already proven to be true.
Over 800 NYU students vowed to make their world a better place. Here are some of the ways they’re being greener Violets.
— Using LED bulbs
— Unplugging electronic items from the wall when not using them
— Using sunlight over lamps whenever possible
— Turning off lights when leaving a room
— Turning off water when brushing teeth
— Showering for 10 minutes or less
— Drinking tap water to minimize plastic use
— Using reusable shopping bags
— Donating unneeded items to local organizations and charities
— Disposing of batteries and electronics in technoscrap bins
— Buying e-books when possible
— Carrying a reusable water bottle
— Composting food waste
— Eating vegetarian at least three days a week
— Washing clothes in cold water
— Doing only full loads of laundry
— Taking the stairs when possible
— Biking or using mass transit over cars
— Shopping for secondhand clothing over new
— Decorating dorm rooms using homemade or used items
— Printing on both sides of a piece of paper