Environmental Almanac

Illinois Climate Action Plan a focus at UIUC Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment


Let’s face it, conservation is rarely sexy. And stories of conservation can be difficult to tell, because they typically lack individual heroes and often turn on doing less of something, not more. To wit. Between fiscal years 2008 and 2014, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reduced its atmospheric carbon pollution (“emissions,” if you prefer) from 530,000 tons to 450,000 tons. That’s 15 percent.

As an institution we taught, housed and fed no fewer students, did no less research and outreach, and continued our world-class contributions to the arts and culture as before. We even added the significant energy demands of the National Petascale Computing Facility to the mix. And still, we reduced our carbon pollution by 15 percent.

That means we’ve made significant strides toward carbon neutrality by 2050, a commitment we undertook in 2008 by signing the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.

How did we make such strides? I spoke recently with Ben McCall to find out. McCall is a professor of chemistry at the U of I who also holds an appointment as associate director in the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment, which was launched in December 2013.

McCall reminded me that roughly 90 percent of campus carbon emissions are attributable to energy. “That’s the big fish,” he said, “so changes we make in energy usage, production and purchasing have the greatest impacts on emissions.”

Conservation—that is, the energy we are not using—is the most important aspect of the energy picture, and “energy use intensity” (defined as energy unit demand per unit of floorplan) is the metric used to gauge that. Between 2008 and 2014 energy use intensity on campus was reduced by 20 percent.

McCall was quick to point out that the lion’s share of credit for this reduction goes to the work of Retrocommissioning teams from U of I Facilities & Services. “They’re the ones who do the unglamorous work of going from building to building to tune up the mechanical systems, and that’s where the biggest savings come from.” (Those in charge of Retrocommissioning at F & S calculate the cost avoidance made possible by their work to be near $22 million.)

The context for McCall’s remarks about energy on campus was a broader conversation about the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP), which was developed in 2010 and includes other targets relating to sustainability. One of the important targets for 2015 that we’ve already reached is a 20 percent reduction in the use of potable water. Another we’re nearing is the purchase of 30 percent of the food used by U of I Dining Services from local sources.

In his role at the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment, McCall is coordinating the work of six recently established Working Advisory Teams, which bring together students, faculty and staff who have interests and expertise in various aspects of sustainability. Just this week these teams finalized assessments of progress the U of I has made on its current climate action targets, and released suggestions for revising the plan.

If you’re interested to see what the teams came up with, or even explore the possibility of joining one yourself, keep an eye on the Institute’s website, sustainability.illinois.edu. It’s a work in progress, but materials related to progress on the climate action plan should be available within the next week or so.