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Since 2009, Penn has reduced its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 37% and building-related emissions by 41%.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Penn released its annual Climate and Sustainability Action Plan 3.0 report for the 2020 fiscal year, which showed sizable reduction in carbon emissions and waste generation — largely due to the pandemic. 

The report, released on Dec. 1, summarizes the University’s latest progress in environmental sustainability made from 2019 to 2024 with a commitment to achieve a 100% carbon neutral campus by 2042. It documents the progress across seven sectors: academics, utilities and operations, physical environment, waste and innovation recycling, purchasing, transportation, and outreach and engagement. 

Since the launch of the first Climate Action Plan in 2009, Penn has notably reduced its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 37% and building-related emissions by 41%. Earlier this year, the University also signed a Solar Power Purchase Agreement for the construction of two new solar energy facilities, which will provide 75% of the required electricity for the academic campus and the University of Pennsylvania Health System.  

Although March's campus shutdown reduced the University's carbon emissions, it also hindered other campus sustainability initiatives. Other endeavors, like developing guidance to purchase low- or zero emissions vehicles and sustainability education programs, were delayed or altered to operate remotely due to COVID-19.

“[The pandemic] definitely did impact our initiatives kind of across the board,” Sustainability Director Nina Morris said. “We saw reduction in our waste generated and the waste diversion rate dropped as well. Obviously, air travel has dropped significantly and some efforts have been slowed because our campus staff has been focusing on preparing for COVID and efforts to improve property programs, enhancing green IT.” 

Penn is "tracking well" with its goal to achieve complete neutrality in 22 years, Morris said. 

Air travel emissions changed dramatically this year due to reductions in travel amid the pandemic, and were reduced by 36% in FY20 as compared to FY19 according to the report. While Penn’s air travel emissions are believed to account for about 10% of total carbon emissions for the main campus, they accounted for 7% of total emissions this year. 

The pandemic also led Penn to see a great reduction in solid waste generation starting in March 2020. The University reduced solid waste by 23% percent in FY20 compared to FY09, according to the report.

University Architect Mark Kocent said that the biggest impact on Penn’s fossil fuel emissions has been the reduction of air travel and jet fuel consumption, because the number of people traveling has gone down this year.. He added that there’s a working group looking at additional initiatives to offset air travel footprints, with mixed ideas from students and faculty have been contributing to. 

Rather than just through operations, however, College junior and Fossil Free Penn coordinator Katie Collier believes Penn should focus on reducing its investments in natural resources. Fossil Free Penn will continue to take that stance, she said. 

“Penn can basically make any sort of changes to how our buildings run, whether that be they switched everything to solar power or, you know, using that kind of nature, it really won't make a huge impact unless Penn divests its endowment and stops fueling the fire of climate change,” Collier said, adding that the University should refrain from taking credit for changes that have dropped solely because of the pandemic. 

Penn has significant investments in natural resources made up of private funds and securities in managed accounts, according to the University's annual financial report for FY20. 

Following a surge of demands last year from students — many of whom were Fossil Free Penn members — and faculty calling on Penn to directly address the ongoing climate crisis, the University established the Environmental Innovations Initiative in efforts to recruit students and researchers to solve environmental issues.

“[EII] is going to be a real central group that helps coordinate a lot of sustainability-based research on campus,” Kocent said, adding that the recently established Faculty Senate Committee on the Institutional Response to the Climate Emergency is also working to improve academics and research-related environmental initiatives.

According to the report, 30% of Penn's student population was enrolled in sustainability-related courses during the 2019-20 academic year. The University offers more than 400 sustainability-related courses today.

“Anything where students can learn about sustainability and environmentalism is really important,” Collier said, adding that these courses should be mandatory within the undergraduate curriculum regardless of students' majors. 

"I think as climate change exacerbates, it's more important than ever that anything that we do should have a sustainability or climate change kind of lens, because that is going to dominate our world kind of the way COVID is right now," Collier said. 

Sustainability-related courses should be taught through a lens of justice and equity, Collier also emphasized, so that students can understand the disproportionate impacts that climate change and environmental disasters have on vulnerable communities. 

Progress outlined in this year's report follows an initial five-year plan released in 2009, 2014's Climate Action Plan 2.0, and 2019's Climate Action Plan 3.0

“[The report] is a great example of how Penn brings so many bright minds together to solve these global challenges right here on our campus,” Morris said. “We've got students, faculty and staff working on these issues together because it’s not something one of us can solve on our own, it's something we have to do together.”