A leading environmental group named GW one of the least eco-friendly campuses in the nation last week, a year after University President Steven Knapp made sustainability a top priority of his administration.
The Sierra Club, one of the country’s oldest environmental organizations, highlighted GW as one of five colleges that failed to implement policies to fight climate change. The report, which appeared in the club’s most recent magazine, cited the University’s failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, implement green building policies or create incentives to ride public transportation.
Knapp condemned the article in an interview Tuesday, pointing to the school’s improvement of its environmental practices and the recent pledges to improve campus sustainability. He highlighted several ongoing initiatives including an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, Student Association efforts to obtain a Metro discount and plans for a green building policy.
“The paradox is that we were the first university in the District of Columbia to develop a 20-year campus plan that actually has any reference to environmental standards,” Knapp said. “We’re still trying to find out how their information could have been so terribly off base.”
Sustainability experts said the University has made commitments to fight climate change, but the report and other similar assessments show how far the school has fallen behind its peers in recent years. In March, the Sustainable Endowment Institute gave GW a “D+” in their “Sustainability Report Card.” University officials noted a study released last week from the National Wildlife Federation, which praised GW for setting significant sustainability goals “with plans to do more.”
Sierra Club lifestyle editor Josie Garthwaite said they were concerned with concrete, implemented policies rather than promises like Knapp’s signing of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in May.
“What we were measuring was accomplishments,” Garthwaite said. “We were not measuring aspirations.”
Knapp commissioned a task force last year to investigate ways to improve sustainability on campus. Their report, released this summer, acknowledged that GW is starting from below average but remained hopeful that the school can make meaningful changes in the near future.
“We are well behind many other colleges and universities, and the private sector is moving swiftly too,” the report said. “A reality is that GW has little yet to brag about, and the world is rightly suspicious of those who boast prematurely – especially when it comes to environmental matters.”
Maggie Desmond, who graduated in May, founded the Green GW student organization and served as a student member of Knapp’s task force.
“(The Sierra Club ranking) is obviously disheartening, but the movement and task force report are so young,” Desmond said. “Two years ago there was no semblance of a green movement so the fact that we’ve come this far in that amount of time says something.”
Scott Carlson, a sustainability reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, said while he does not know GW’s policies firsthand, he was unimpressed by the suggestions set forth in the task force report.
“Some of the things mentioned in the report, such as using reusable bags in the bookstore are great, but they’re peanuts compared to what many colleges and universities are doing,” Carlson said.
This semester, the University will establish and staff an office of sustainability to oversee and track University progress in achieving its environmental goals. The search for the department’s director is underway and task force leaders said they are eager to see a shift to the implementation phase.
“The office of sustainability is a necessary first step, but it is not a substitute for involvement by everybody,” said sustainability task force co-chair Lew Rumford. “The real question is – is this something that can be embodied in the GW character?”
Other Schools That Failed:
The College of William and Mary
Texas Tech University
Aldosta State University