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State of Sustainability at Drake

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The Times-Delphic spoke to three sustainability leaders on campus to explore this question. Drake Environmental Action League (DEAL) president Jacob Lish said that the answers are of utmost relevance to Drake students and alumni, since they will be experiencing the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation for years to come.

“I think it’s really in the best interest of the University, frankly, to be working towards sustainability because students want it and alumni want it, and I know there’s definitely faculty who want it too,” Lish said. 

Realistically, the impact of all educational institutions achieving net-zero emissions would still be minimal on a global scale, according to David Courard-Hauri, Drake’s environmental science and sustainability department chair. 

Institutions of higher education also serve as ideological centers. Courard-Hauri said students want to attend institutions that promote their values. Universities are often large stakeholders in companies with large environmental footprints, and hence pull economic weight as well, he said. 66 percent of college-bound teens and their parents reported that a college’s commitment to the environment would affect their decision to apply or attend, a Princeton Review study reported. 

“You need to have sectors who are experimenting, and often, universities are a place where that can happen,” Courard-Hauri said. “Part of it is that students want to be in a place where they can see their ideals in action, so universities have an incentive to do that.”

The Past: Student Initiatives and Consolidating Efforts

Courard-Houri said that there were very few sustainability initiatives on campus when he joined the Drake faculty in 2000. 

Drake began single-stream recycling in 2009, and students and faculty established the Next Course food recovery network in 2014. Next Course also partnered with DEAL and Sodexo to begin the Hubbell compost program in 2016, according to Courard-Hauri. Lish said the residential compost program was established in 2020.

Students in DEAL spearheaded the grant that founded the Sprout Garden to provide fresh food and environmental education to the Drake community in 2013, the Times-Delphic reported. In that same year, a student-led campaign successfully led Drake to ban plastic water bottle sales at most places on campus, USA Today reported. All of these initiatives continue to thrive on campus.

Over multiple years, Drake has undertaken water retention projects designed to reduce flooding and mimic water flow in natural systems. These include rain gardens on 27th Street, water storage tanks underneath parking lots—now required by code—and, coming in the fall, two bioswales designed to reduce flooding in the Harvey-Ingham area.

Water from campus ultimately drains into a creek behind the Knapp Center. Some of these projects aim to reduce erosion and pollution of this creek.

“Now, even when it hasn’t rained in a little while, there’s a more constant flow down into the little stream and there’s also less of a flash [flood] when it does rain,” Courard-Hauri said. “Now you’ll find there are little fish in the stream, frogs and stuff, so because of the water flow, it’s becoming more like a natural system.”

In addition to efforts to manage stormwater, Drake has also undertaken initiatives to provide alternative transportation. These include the Olmsted Bike Library, a free pass to the DART bus system and reduced admission to Des Moines’ BCycle program.

Five years ago, Drake joined the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System, or STARS, an action Courard-Hauri described as an attempt to increase consistency among “piecemeal” sustainability efforts. Through STARS, colleges earn points for engaging in various measures to increase their campus’s sustainability, such as supporting sustainable transportation and minimizing food waste. 

Drake earned a bronze STARS rating its first year participating in the program, a rating it continues to hold. Institutions need a minimum of 25 points to achieve a bronze rating. For reference, institutions scoring platinum, the highest rating, need a minimum of 85 points. (See a breakdown of Drake’s 32 STARS points here, as provided to the faculty senate in February 2020.)

Prior to hiring Sophia Siegal in fall 2020, Drake administration did not include a position dedicated to sustainability. Siegal, who graduated from Drake in 2020 with a B.A. in environmental sustainability and resilience, said that she proposed and wrote the job description for sustainability coordinator. The Drake administration approved a budget for the position, meaning the University could finally fund initiatives outside of those specified by donors, Siegal said.

“I’ve received so much support from Sophia,” Lish said. “Just her position existing has made it far easier for students across the University to work together on sustainable initiatives … I think it’s really essential for all colleges and universities, frankly, to have a sustainability coordinator or multiple sustainability coordinators. Because every time I walked into Sofia’s office, there were just so many things on that whiteboard of things that were in the works, things that were happening that the University should be proud of and should be advertising.”

Siegel left her position as sustainability coordinator in March of this year after accepting a position in the Chicago area.

The Present: Drake’s Climate Action Plan

Drake’s sustainability framework is based upon the University’s 2013 Climate Action Plan. In the document, Drake commits to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Courard-Hauri said that the University plans to gradually achieve this goal via 25 percent emissions reduction targets every 10 years or less. 

The plan outlines sectors in which Drake can reduce its emissions, such as building and energy use, HVAC equipment, lighting equipment, waste, transportation, electricity and natural gas use. 

Former sustainability coordinator Sophia Siegal said the Climate Action Plan more broadly outlines the University’s vision and focuses less on strategy. Plans addressing individual components of sustainability, such as the strategic sustainability plan and strategic energy plan, provide the University with more specific steps on how to carry out the goals in the Climate Action Plan. Even so, there have been calls for an updated, more strategic Climate Action Plan. 

“Getting a better Climate Action Plan, I think, would be useful for helping us to really think through what are we going to do and when do we need to do it,” Courard-Hauri said.

Drake met its 2020 goal of reducing emissions by 25 percent. As noted by Courard-Hauri and Lish, however, these decadal goals will become increasingly difficult to achieve. 

“A lot of the changes that have been made are the really easy changes,” Lish said. “Going forward, the changes aren’t going to be as easy. It’s going to be harder for us to meet those goals. I think another big reason that Drake has met those goals is simply because MidAmerican Energy has been building a lot of renewable energy sources, which allows us to say that our energy is acquired renewably even though Drake hasn’t done a single thing for that.”

Drake has reduced its net emissions from 29,526 to 16,456 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent since 2007, when Drake began monitoring its emissions. 

According to the Climate Action Plan, Drake’s emissions fall into three university-dictated categories. Scope one emissions include sources owned and operated by Drake, such as combustion of equipment and leakage of refrigerants and other chemicals. Scope two emissions include the “purchase of power from sources not owned or controlled by Drake University,” such as power derived from MidAmerican Energy. Scope three emissions include emissions from students commuting to and from campus, events and other activities not directly controlled by the University.

Reductions in scope two and scope three emissions are nearly twice that of scope one emissions. 

All new constructions on campus will achieve at least LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver level or two Green Globes, the Climate Action Plan says. Both of these standards of construction award points for water and energy efficiency systems and other sustainable building components. Hubbell Dining Hall is certified LEED silver, Collier-Scripps and the Science Connector Building each have two Green Globes and the Tom and Ruth Harkin Center has three Green Globes out of the possible four. 

“There were all these different ways you could do sustainability, all these different ways that you can make a building more sustainable, and the genius of LEED was that they said ‘Okay, there’s a whole gradient of sustainability and what we can do is we can give people credit for moving along that gradient,” Courard-Hauri said.

Additionally, the Roger Knapp Tennis Center has achieved net-zero status after replacing energy-inefficient lighting with LEDs and installing 346 solar panels.

The Future: Campus Sustainability Leaders Voice Their Ideas

The Climate Action Plan requires that Drake make “sustainability a part of the curriculum.” Central College, a private college of approximately 1,100 students in Pella, Iowa, requires that their students take a sustainability course, and Lish suggested Drake could do the same.

“There’s a lot of classes within all sorts of departments that are tied to sustainability,” Lish said. “There’s really space for those classes to be taken by a wide variety of students, and I think having students think more consciously about that would enable us to be better global thinkers.”

Siegal said that she would like to see Drake use more data-based approaches to sustainability. For instance, the University could gather more data regarding emissions from personal vehicles used by students, faculty and staff. Siegal described a student intern’s work to create an energy dashboard that can track Drake’s use of gas power, electric power and water over time, which would allow the University to better track their energy use.

Drake can also pursue its equity and inclusion goals by making ethical and sustainable purchasing decisions, Siegal said. She referenced meat packers that foster safe working conditions, as well as growers who engage in environmentally ethical practices.

“There’s ways that we can think about larger systems of inequity and how that incorporates and damages the environment,” Siegal said.

Siegal also recommended hiring more interns to work on projects, providing more opportunities for students to work on sustainability projects and hiring an energy manager in addition to filling the currently vacant sustainability coordinator position. 

A recently-hired communications intern is working to promote Drake sustainability through social media—an area in which Siegal suggested the department could expand.

Lish and Siegal said that Drake does not disincentivize students from using personal vehicles aside from the parking permit, so ultimately, the system isn’t as impactful as it could be.

“In regards to transportation habits of students, faculty and staff, I think there’s a better way we could be doing that in regards to who brings cars, where cars park, ways to incentivize people who live not that far off campus that like to drive to campus,” Siegal said.

Courard-Hauri said that new buildings and renovated buildings should utilize an energy source other than the existing natural gas system. The Meredith renovation, however, will not involve switching the building off natural gas, Courard-Hauri told Lish.

“We’re going to have to rethink the way we heat and cool buildings to meet that [Climate Action Plan] goal,” Courard-Hauri said. “We’re going to have to completely redo Drake’s physical infrastructure.”

Q and A: Is Sustainability a Priority at Drake?

DEAL President Jacob Lish:

  • “We really have the opportunity to be a leader when it comes to sustainability in Des Moines and around Iowa, and right now we’re not successful at being a leader. We’re very much a follower, just kind of doing things often at the will of students. If students want it to be a thing, then they put in all the effort to make it possible rather than administration saying ‘I want this to be a priority.’”

Former Sustainability Coordinator Sophia Siegal:

  • “Realistically, we want to change our goals to like 2030 or 2035. Because by 2050, the irreversible damage has been done. At least that’s what the science is saying.”
  • “I want to say, ‘Let’s just prioritize [sustainability],’ but if other things are falling apart, like, until something’s urgent, sometimes you don’t see the changes unless you’ve got a lot of money to deal with things way ahead.” 

Environmental Science Department Chair David Courard-Hauri

  • “There are definitely other other universities that are well out ahead of Drake, but I think we’re making progress and so we’re also not a follower.”
  • “[The 2050 goal] is big and it’s tough and I think that it matters, but we could probably do better if we really wanted to.”
  • “[The 2050 goal] is in some ways ambitious and in some ways underwhelming. There’s a lot that we’re going to have to do to get to net zero. It’s a tall task. 2050 seems like a long way away, but it’s coming up, and each time each of our decadal goals are going to get more difficult, although easier in the sense that technology will be improving.”

This article has been corrected to reflect that the University plans to achieve net zero emissions via 25 percent reductions every 10 years or less, not 20 percent, according to Courard-Hauri.

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