Sustainability shapes research, campus conservation, and innovation

A commitment to sustainability winds through Emory like a stubborn thread — environmental engagement that shapes and supports scholarship, teaching, partnerships, and campus practices.

Increasingly, it’s a vision that is also winning national attention and acclaim.

Last year, Emory was recognized as a top performer in the 2016 Sustainable Campus Index, earning the ninth overall spot among US research institutions. A publication of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), the index highlights top-performing colleges and universities in 17 areas and overall by institution type, as measured by the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS).

We are pleased to recognize Emory for working to secure a thriving, equitable, and ecologically healthy world by incorporating sustainability into campus operations, administration, engagement, and academics," says Meghan Fay Zahniser, AASHE’s executive director.

Emory achieved top-10 status by earning a high score in the Overall Top Performers subcategory in STARS. Since 2005, the university has reduced campus energy use by 25 percent per square foot, added more than 300 sustainability-related courses and built the WaterHub, an award-winning water reclamation facility that is the first of its kind in the nation.

In fact, among Tier I Association of American Universities schools, Emory currently ranks third in the US under AASHE’s STARS rating.

Those kinds of rankings make sense when you consider that Emory’s Office of Sustainability Initiatives has a substantial history of student, faculty, and staff engagement, which encourages the entire Emory community to assist with sustainability efforts, according to Ciannat Howett, director of Emory’s Office of Sustainability Initiatives.

“We are proud that Emory continues to be recognized as one of the nation’s leaders in campus sustainability,” says Howett. “Our ninth ranking overall shows that the collaborative efforts of students, faculty, and staff work to create a culture of sustainability that expands across disciplines and departments.”

students in woods taking notes

Promoting campus-wide commitment

That’s a commitment that goes all the way to the top of the university. In December 2015, former Emory Provost — and now Emory President — Claire E. Sterk announced new university-wide support for Climate@Emory, an interdisciplinary, campus-wide initiative that advances scholarship, teaching, partnership, and engagement around climate change at Emory and beyond.

The goal is to harness Emory's strengths to help it play a leading role in the global response to perhaps the most complicated and pressing problems of our time.

"Global climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today. As a university dedicated to educating future leaders, Emory has an opportunity to harness the expertise of our faculty and the talents of our student body to make a difference in this area," says President Sterk.

Joining in supporting the effort are six schools and colleges across Emory University: Rollins School of Public Health, Emory College, Goizueta Business School, School of Medicine, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and School of Law.

The administrative support included seed funding of approximately $125,000, a major boost over previous funding for the initiative, which launched in 2014.

“Seed funding for Climate@Emory will enable the development of a portfolio of new activities and initiatives that promise to significantly advance our response to climate change in the years ahead,” says Daniel Rochberg, chief strategy officer for the Climate@Emory initiative and an instructor in the Department of Environmental Health at Rollins School of Public Health and in Emory College’s Department of Environmental Sciences.

Since its launch, the initiative has strived to support, connect, and expand Emory's climate-related scholarship, teaching, and community engagement. "It's really not possible to understand climate change from the standpoint of any one discipline," says Eri Saikawa, one of the founders of Climate@Emory and an assistant professor at Rollins School of Public Health and in the Department of Environmental Sciences. "We want to connect the dots to improve the quality and impact of Emory's research and provide a platform for intellectual engagement on climate change."

From the smoke of open stoves in developing parts of the world, to the pollution of coal-fired utilities and gas-guzzling SUVs in industrialized countries, the issues of climate change are tightly bound up with culture, politics, religion, and economics, says Saikawa, who is an expert in atmospheric chemistry and environmental policy. Her classes on air pollution and ecological economics draw students from majors throughout the sciences and humanities.

"Emory is one of those rare places where people truly are interested and willing to collaborate across disciplines," Rochberg says. "That makes us especially well-positioned to make a difference in the area of climate change."

professor giving lecture to students

Renewed sustainability vision

Just last summer, Emory reaffirmed that commitment. Building upon a decade of advances in creating an environmentally sustainable campus, the university released a new Sustainability Vision and Strategic Plan intended to amplify and strengthen its role as an innovative leader in the field.

The new vision represents “a step forward in our long journey toward a sustainable campus and community, offering aggressive goals that move us far beyond where we’ve been and making sustainability an even deeper part of who we are as an institution,” says Howett.

“The pace of technology is changing rapidly regarding sustainability,” she says. “This plan allows us to think boldly and big about the future. We’ve pushed ourselves as a committee and a community to set our sights high.”

The plan builds upon foundational work launched more than a decade ago to adopt sustainability as a guiding principle and inscribe it into Emory’s 2005–2015 Strategic Plan, says Peggy Barlett, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology, who cochaired the Sustainability Visioning Committee.

"As we took stock of what Emory has accomplished, the committee was impressed by the range and excitement generated by that list. But at the same time, we still have challenges to rise to, thinking creatively about the next level up and how to engage more components of the university in our goals," says Barlett.

The new plan continues that broad-based commitment, envisioning a campus that is a model of transformative practices and sustainable choices at every level, according to Barlett, “from the copy room to the operating room, from the classroom to the residence hall.”

To achieve that commitment, the plan outlines four strategic action arenas:

  • Support culture change among academics, health care, and operational units to carry forward courageous action on sustainability.
  • Expand the network of sustainability champions to strengthen leadership at every level.
  • Use Emory landscape, buildings, and operations to model sustainable choices.
  • Create strategic partnerships with local, national, and international institutions to build flourishing and resilient communities.
outside of emorys water hub

Pioneering innovation: The WaterHub

Nowhere is Emory’s commitment to bold, forward-thinking innovation in sustainability more apparent than the WaterHub, a water reclamation facility that harnesses the power of nature to clean and recycle wastewater from residence halls for nonpotable uses on campus.

Employing adaptive ecological technology to break down organic matter naturally in campus wastewater, the facility has reduced Emory’s potable water use by more than 100 million gallons since May 2015.

The first of its kind installed in the US, the pioneering WaterHub system generates an alternative water supply for critical heating and cooling operations on campus, providing economic, environmental, and social benefits for both the university and the broader community.

Not only has the system reduced campus water consumption and costs, it has opened new possibilities for research, scholarship, and water conservation applications far beyond campus — placing Emory “on the cutting edge of a global revolution,” says Christine Moe, Eugene J. Gangarosa Professor of Safe Water and Sanitation in the Rollins School of Public Health and director of the Center for Global Safe Water at Emory.

"As a large institution, we use a lot of water and we generate a lot of wastewater. We can control that and show innovation by demonstrating smart water conservation and reclamation to the next generation and the Atlanta community. And this facility presents the perfect opportunity."

And the world is taking notice. Since its installation, the WaterHub has hosted more than 1,000 tours with professionals from other universities, local and national government agencies, and Fortune 500 companies.

Since opening, the facility has also received more than a dozen state, regional, and national awards, including recognition as one of three winners of the prestigious US Water Prize. Awarded by the US Water Alliance, the honor recognizes organizations and companies that execute innovative solutions toward the advancement of “one water” sustainability.