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Notre Dame improves sustainability

Sara Felsenstein | Monday, November 1, 2010

Notre Dame received a B+ on the College Sustainability Report Card 2011, improving from its overall grade of B in 2010.

Sarah Levy, communications fellow at the Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI), said that while Notre Dame improved in the categories of Climate & Energy and Food & Recycling, it received low grades in Endowment Transparency and Shareholder Engagement.

The Report Card is an initiative of SEI, a nonprofit organization supporting research to advance sustainability at college campuses across the United States and Canada. Levy said the Report Card is designed to identify colleges and universities that are leaders in sustainability.

“The aim is to provide accessible information for schools to learn from each other’s experiences and establish more effective sustainability practices,” she said.

Universities are graded across nine categories: Administration, Climate Change & Energy, Food & Recycling, Green Building, Transportation, Student Involvement, Endowment Transparency, Investment Priorities and Shareholder Engagement. Data collection for the Report Card 2011 took place from April to September 2010.

“SEI gets its information about each school from publicly available sources, from three surveys sent to school administrators and one survey sent to students,” Levy said.

Since research on the first edition four years ago, Levy said the Report Card surveys show more activity on 52 green indicators, including sustainability committees, green building policy and trayless dining.

Notre Dame’s grade improved in two categories from last year: Climate Change & Energy and Food & Recycling.

“In terms of Climate Change & Energy, Notre Dame has continued to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and building energy consumption has decreased with the use of new efficiency measures such as cogeneration, energy management systems and lighting upgrades,” Levy said. “New sources of renewable energy … contributed to Notre Dame’s higher grade in this area.”

Notre Dame’s changes in food budget and its electronics recycling program also contributed to a higher grade, she said.

“In the Food & Recycling category, Notre Dame is spending about the same percentage of its food budget on local items as last year, but some of the vegetables are now sourced from an on campus garden and fair trade coffee is now available on campus,” Levy said. “Notre Dame’s electronics recycling program and the discounts and prizes provided to students who use reusable mugs and bags also raised the grade.”

Heather Tonk, director of Sustainability at Notre Dame, said the University has stepped up its sustainability efforts since it was first evaluated in 2007.

“Just looking at our scores — in 2007 we had a D, and we have steadily improved since then. This shows the commitment of the administration as well as the students, faculty and staff,” she said.

Tonk said Notre Dame has always scored high in the category of Student Involvement — scoring an “A” every year since the first evaluation.

She said over the last few years the Office of Sustainability has focused on energy measures, because those are what drive Notre Dame’s carbon emissions. Tonk said the University is in the midst of investing $10 million in energy conservation measures.

“The Office of Sustainability is continually looking for ways to raise awareness,” she said.

Levy said schools are generally weakest in the categories of Endowment Transparency and Shareholder Engagement. These were also Notre Dame’s weakest categories.

“Access to endowment information is needed within a college community to foster constructive dialogue about opportunities for clean energy investment, as well as shareholder voting priorities,” she said.

The weakest category overall, she said, was Shareholder Engagement, which had an average grade of “D” across the universities surveyed.

“Endowment investment decisions are an expression of universities’ financial values and priorities,” Levy said. “Schools that own stocks in corporations have shareholder rights and responsibilities, including the right to engage in constructive dialogue with corporate executives.”

Levy emphasized the responsibility universities have to look beyond green initiatives on their own campuses — universities should also promote such measures in the corporations they support.

“These corporations have huge impacts on the environmental and social issues with their own products and policies,” she said. “As institutions of higher learning, universities have a responsibility to not only their own campus, but to the greater community, and even the world.”