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How Auburn promotes sustainability on campus

AUBURN, Ala. (EETV) – On college campuses with tens of thousands of students, hundreds of buildings and thousands of megawatts of energy consumed throughout the school year, sustainability is a complicated practice.  

AUBURN, Ala. (EETV) – On college campuses with tens of thousands of students, hundreds of buildings and thousands of megawatts of energy consumed throughout the school year, sustainability is a complicated practice.  

Auburn University has its own Office of Sustainability, directed by Mike Kensler. The office helped create the university's sustainability policy to reach its goal of being a “national leader in sustainability teaching, research, research outreach, and practice.”  

“Sustainability is about making sure that the world that shows up is one we want to live in, one that’s healthy, just, fair. That includes everybody that makes sure that the planet itself thrives because if the planet doesn’t thrive, we don’t thrive,” Kensler said. 

One of the ways colleges across the country, including Auburn, are making a difference is through the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system. According to the USGBC website, the rating system is intended to “provide a framework for healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings, which offer environmental, social and governance benefits.”  

Kensler says that adopting the LEED building standards was one of the most impactful steps taken by the university to reach its sustainability goals. Policies like this one are making a considerable difference not only to energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions at Auburn but also to the success and well-being of its students. 

“According to the Chan School of Public Health at Harvard, LEED-certified buildings show a 26% improvement in cognitive ability. So, for example, the ACLC [Academic Classroom Laboratory Complex] is a LEED-certified building and test scores have gone up in there,” Kensler commented. 

Implementing these building standards can also improve the overall health of students.  

“[There has been] a 30% reduction in sick building syndrome in certified buildings because they’re built to be more environmentally and human health responsible,” explained Kensler. 

According to Sumedha M. Joshi in the Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, “sick building syndrome (SBS) is used to describe a situation in which the occupants of a building experience acute health- or comfort-related effects that seem to be linked directly to the time spent in the building.” Symptoms of SBS may include dizziness, eye, nose, or throat irritation, difficulty in concentration and nausea. 

Another crucial step taken by the university was signing the Climate Leadership Network’s Carbon Commitment in 2008. Created specifically for colleges and universities, institutions are encouraged to sign the commitment to reduce climate disturbance and greenhouse gas emissions. Auburn is the only university in the state of Alabama to have signed it.  

By signing the Carbon Commitment, Auburn certified that all operations of the university will be carbon-neutral by 2050.  

The commitment outlines that “campuses that address the climate challenge by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and by integrating resilience into their curriculum, research, and campus operations will better serve their students and meet their social mandate to help create a vital, ethical, and prosperous civil society.” 

“We have a goal to be carbon neutral, in other words, to stop contributing to global warming by emitting more carbon than the background would be,” said Kensler.  

Other university departments are also working to reach the climate goals set by the Office of Sustainability.  

The Energy Management Department (EMD) monitors the usage of energy around campus. The Energy Reduction Strategy implemented in 2020 by the department aims to reduce the amounts of natural gas, water and electricity purchased. The EMD also prioritizes resource conservation through the recommissioning of buildings, giving them a sustainable makeover when needed.  

“That same unit has invested in real-time monitoring of gas, water and electricity. So, let’s say there’s a toilet running somewhere. They can see it as it happens and get somebody out there to fix it,” explained Kensler. “They’ve had a huge positive impact on the cost of utilities by having this aggressive energy efficiency program.” 

On the topic of game days and other events that bring visitors to campus by the thousands, Kensler says that increased waste production and resource consumption is an unfortunate side effect that would be difficult to tackle. To promote climate-conscious behaviors and show students that less waste production is possible, the Office of Sustainability hosts a zero-waste picnic every August. 

“The way we designed that event, we serve food on reusable plates and cups and silverware. There are a lot of things people can do to make their events zero waste and sustainable,” Kensler said.  

Setting achievable climate action goals for the university is a fundamental purpose of the Office of Sustainability. Through policies and plans, the office can aid the university in heading the fight against climate change. 

“Sustainability is a worldview. It is a way of seeing the world, seeing how everything is connected, and that to get better outcomes, we have to think and do things differently,” said Kensler. 

To learn more about policies and plans enacted by the Office of Sustainability, visit their website.