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North Hills Monthly

Pitt Sustainability Plan Focuses on Stewardship, Exploration and Community

Dec 31, 2018 08:46PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

The University of Pittsburgh's rain garden.

Climate change is a (pardon the pun) hot topic in politics today, but politics aside, many individuals, institutions and government entities are trying to do something about it. There are several climate-based initiatives in Pittsburgh, and the University of Pittsburgh is one of several leaders in sustainability. We spoke with Dr. Aurora Sharrard, former executive director of the Green Building Alliance (GBA) and the first director of Pitt’s newly established Office of Sustainability, about some of the projects in the works and how they benefit the whole region. Dr. Sharrard has also worked with the Pittsburgh Climate Initiative and previously collaborated with Pitt via GBA’s Pittsburgh 2030 District and other efforts.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What are some of your duties as director of sustainability, and why was this position created?

Dr. Aurora Sharrard (Sharrard): Pitt has been working on sustainability across disciplines and business units for several decades. In 2016 and 2017, the University Sustainability Committee created a plan to help the university pursue measurable goals, along with university-wide sustainability strategies, policies and partnerships. The committee advocated strongly for the creation of a centralized office to coordinate efforts, foster collaboration and monitor the progress of Pitt’s sustainability goals and aspirations.

NHM: How do you define “sustainability?”

Sharrard: The University of Pittsburgh defines sustainability as balancing equity, environment and economics so current and future generations can thrive.

NHM: What does sustainability have to do with climate?

Sharrard: There are a number of grand challenges that we have as a society—one of the best ways to visualize these is to look at the United Nation’s global goals for sustainable development. There are 17 goals including ‘no poverty’ to reduce inequality to climate action. While there’s some debate about climate change in politics, there isn’t among people who know the science. As a result, climate action is an extremely large goal, and the timeline is shortening related to the scale on which we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions faster.

NHM: What are some specific problems or challenges relating to our planet’s climate?

Sharrard: Science shows that the planet is warming, and that this warming is linked to people's direct impact on the planet, especially via industrialization. This could cause global greenhouse gas emissions to shoot up as high as 4 to 5 degrees Celsius by 2100 (7.2 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit). The human population can't withstand that level of increase.

NHM: Tell us about Pitt’s Sustainability Plan, including its general goals and the target date for achieving those goals.

Sharrard: The plan was finalized in January 2018 and organized around three themes—stewardship, exploration, and community and culture. Each has a number of impact areas and 61 goals total. A lot of thought was put into the structure of the plan. Starting with energy and emissions, the goal is to strive toward climate neutrality by reducing greenhouse emissions 50 percent by 2030.

NHM: What are some of Pitt’s specific sustainability initiatives under the plan?

Sharrard: We have a whole host of sustainability initiatives. Pitt Dining, for example, has numerous sustainability successes, including bringing your own bag and coffee mug, as well as scaling up reusable containers for to-go dining. There is also a focus on real food (food that’s local, sustainable, fair and humane), and food recovery (for which we just won an EPA Regional Award). Also, in 2018 Pitt achieved Bike Friendly University Bronze status from the League of American Bicyclists, which is a nice indicator of how the university is embracing a bike culture.

NHM: Aren’t there are also climate-focused initiatives, such as Pitt’s recent hydropower purchase?

Sharrard: The hydropower electricity purchase announced in December is one of the biggest and most visible successes out of the plan so far. The University has committed to buying all of the electricity from a future low-impact hydroelectric facility at the existing Allegheny Lock and Dam No. 2. The 50,000-megawatt hours this facility will produce annually represents approximately 25 percent of the electricity Pitt’s main campus uses on an annual basis. This is the first hydropower resource to be built on the three rivers in three decades, so is a tremendous first step for the region to re-embrace what we have in abundance—water—and take advantage of that resource that is continuously flowing less than five miles from Pitt. The facility also allows for Pitt teaching and research opportunities on site, and will keep us on track to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2030.

NHM: How will these sustainability initiatives benefit the entire region of Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities?

Sharrard: The University of Pittsburgh is small piece of the overall region—we are trying to be a leader in research, teaching, learning, innovation, and partnering with other institutions of higher learning, nonprofits, industry, and local governments to figure out how to attack some of these challenges together.

There is a whole section of the Pitt Sustainability plan that addresses “exploration”—that includes teaching, learning, research, and innovation. The Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation is a faculty-driven research and outreach center that has led faculty sustainability activities for 15 years. In partnership, we are tracking how many sustainability courses Pitt has, offering a new undergraduate certificate of sustainability, and working to integrate sustainability into every student’s experience at the university. 

It is efforts like these that help create pipelines of discerning thinkers, professionals, and innovations that have embedded sustainability into their cores. 

NHM: What are some other climate-related regional initiatives and successes happening here in Pittsburgh?

Sharrard: The Pittsburgh Climate Initiative was around for about a decade as a collaboration that helped create three climate action plans, the most recent of which was adopted by City Council earlier this year. That body was very important and is evolving into its next level of governance. There is also the Higher Education Climate Consortium, which we're in the process of reinvigorating right now to keep Pittsburgh’s colleges and universities in formal sustainability collaboration. What is required for the whole region to make progress is for us all to reach across organizations and sectors to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

NHM: Are you optimistic about the future of sustainability?

Sharrard: You have to be! We can each make positive change and move people—one by one and together—toward triple bottom line progress.

NHM: Are we on the right track?

Sharrard: Yes; the University of Pittsburgh is on the right track, the city is on the right track, and many people in the U.S. are pointed in the right direction and doing hard work to attack our climate and sustainability challenges. What most people are working on is not outlandish: we can quantify this, we know how behavior can change, and we know how to motivate people to make change.

NHM: What are some ways that individuals can contribute to a sustainable Pittsburgh in their own practices at home?

Sharrard: There are a lot of things that people can do. A lot of times people feel like it’s a small decision to recycle, compost, or bike instead of driving a single-occupancy vehicle; these decisions definitely make a difference. With 7.7 billion people in this world, when we each make small changes, they make a big difference together.