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A Sustainable Planet
April 19, 2012
GW hosts innovation summit, gathering leaders from around the U.S. to discuss solutions for environmental problems.
George Washington University President Steven Knapp outlined some of the challenges facing the planet on Tuesday.
By 2050, the world population is expected to grow by as many as 3 billion people. To keep up with these changes, the world will need double the amount of food, energy and water we consume today.
“How do we manage that?” Dr. Knapp asked. “How do we prepare for that kind of future?”
GW held an innovation summit Tuesday to try to answer some of these questions. The event brought together sustainability leaders in government, academia, nonprofit and industry to share their perspectives and propose ideas for some of the world’s most pressing issues.
Hosted by Frank Sesno, director of GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs and creator of Planet Forward, the summit featured a series of panels on issues including urban sustainability, renewable energy and the role of technology and business in promoting sustainability.
“We’re here because there’s a crisis but also because there’s great opportunity,” said Mr. Sesno. “The challenge is how we at this university be a catalyst for innovation, for solutions, how can we share, foster, communicate the ideas needed to move the planet forward.”
GW’s Planet Forward, a project of the Center for Innovative Media in SMPA, is an online social network where innovative ideas addressing global challenges are featured, discussed and evaluated. Showcasing original video, blog entries and commentary, this social network invites participation and opinion from policymakers, students, advocates and practitioners. Contributors with the most promising and original ideas are featured on a national television show and selected as “Planet Forward Innovators,” earning them a shot at implementing their idea on an ambitious scale. Planet Forward recently partnered with Bloomberg Television.
Several participants of the summit made “innovation challenges” – individual commitments to improve the planet over the next year. GW, along with eight other D.C. universities, committed to reducing energy usage in its buildings by 69,000 MMBtus annually, which is enough energy to power 720 U.S. households for a year.
This commitment made by the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, is part of the District of Columbia Mayor’s College and University Sustainability Pledge to make D.C. the greenest college town in America.
“As a sector, we hope to continue to offer a model of sustainability innovation for citizens and organizations across the District,” said Meghan Chapple-Brown, director of GW’s Office of Sustainability. “Universities tend to have a big impact on climate change through energy use in our buildings, and we challenge other building owners in D.C. to increase energy efficiency.”
The universities, which signed the sustainability pledge with D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, B.A. ’64, in February, also committed to improve the District by taking a more sustainable approach to climate change, water systems, waste, green education and training, research and innovation, landscaping, transportation and procurement. GW has several individual goals including reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2025, cutting bottled water purchases in half by 2016 and curbing energy use in buildings by 35 percent.
Christophe Tulou, director of D.C.’s Department of the Environment, announced at Tuesday’s summit that the District is committing to hosting a website featuring the sustainability commitments.
To kick off the summit, which was sponsored by the GW Office of Sustainability, the Office of the Provost and Planet Forward, Aneesh Chopra, former chief technology officer of the U.S., highlighted the role technology can play in helping consumers be more aware of their energy usage. Earlier this month, the White House launched the “Apps for Energy” competition, challenging American developers to build apps that help consumers get the most out of their utility data.
During a panel discussion on information technology, Alex Laskey, co-founder of Opower – a new customer engagement platform for the utility industry, said traditional energy data is boring and therefore hard to use by the consumer. That’s why Opower presents the data in an engaging and effective way through graphs, online management tools and even personalized emails and text messages.
“It wasn’t sufficient to just give people their energy data in real time,” Mr. Laskey said. “We needed to show them how their consumption compared to similar homes near them and giving someone an alert when they’ve used twice what they typically use.”
The summit also examined why businesses should play a role in sustainability efforts and why ultimately it will be good for their bottom line.
Mark Vachon, vice president of GE ecomagination – an internal department of General Electric that researches energy efficient technologies and renewable energy and how together they can drive economic growth – said businesses have an incentive to invest in sustainability efforts in order to attract top talent.
“Students today want to come to an organization that is working on important problems and have something to do with the solution rather than just pointing at it,” he said.
Dr. Knapp agreed, noting that GW students are engaged in using the skills they learn in the classroom to make “a real difference in the world.”
“The students of this generation are pushing us to look beyond the present to the future,” Dr. Knapp said. “Their passion is contagious, and their ingenuity is sometimes startling.”
Several GW students were recognized at the summit for their commitments to action submitted during the Clinton Global Initiative University, which was held at GW last month. Chris Deschenes, Jon Torrey and Matthew Wilkins won the CGI U “bracket” for their Panda Cycles, a project that builds sustainable bamboo bicycles at an affordable price to reduce carbon emissions and provide a means of transportation in developing countries.
Having today’s college graduates leave universities with an understanding and appreciation for sustainability is critical for ensuring America’s global competitiveness, said Debra Rowe, president of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, during a panel on green jobs.
“To give out a higher education degree today without that student being educated about our sustainability challenges and how we can engage in solutions, not doom and gloom, but doing real-world problem solving is shameful,” said Dr. Rowe.
Studies have shown that students become more interested in science, technology and engineering classes when sustainability issues are incorporated into the curriculum, Dr. Rowe said.
In February, GW launched an undergraduate sustainability minor. The 18-credit minor, which will not be housed in one particular school but rather overseen by the Office of the Provost, will offer courses in all of the university’s schools and colleges. As part of the new minor, at least 2 percent of the total courses offered at GW will be sustainability focused.
But it will take more than just universities to integrate sustainability into the American way of life. Cities and local government must create environments that make it possible for people to adopt environmentally friendly behaviors.
Dr. Knapp joined D.C. Mayor Gray; Tommy Battle, mayor of Huntsville, Ala.; Mark Mallory, mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio; and Melissa Keeley, interim director of GW’s Environmental Studies Program, to discuss best practices in urban sustainability.
Mr. Gray wants D.C. to become the most sustainable city in the U.S. through efforts like Capital Bikeshare and the city’s 55 miles of bike lanes; DC Streetcar, which is expected to open later this year; electric car charging stations at Union Station and D.C.’s plastic bag tax.
Through the passion of its students and the expertise of its faculty, Dr. Knapp sees GW becoming a model of urban sustainability.
Four of GW’s buildings – the Charles E. Smith Center, Lafayette Hall, South Hall and West Hall – have received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. In the last year, solar thermal panels were installed on the roofs of three residence halls to heat water for the buildings. A green plaza near South Hall features a rainwater reclamation system, while green roofs top four buildings.
Dr. Keeley, an assistant professor of geography, public policy and public administration whose research focuses on green infrastructure and urban storm water management, is working with the D.C. government to manage storm water and find ways to prevent it from going into the watershed.
“Well-designed green roofs can contribute multiple benefits in the urban environment,” said Dr. Keeley. “So at the same time that they’re managing storm water, they’re also ameliorating the urban heat island effect and improving air quality. What we have to get everyone to understand is that urban living is sustainable.”
By 2050, of the 9 billion people on the planet, 6 billion will be living in cities, and Mr. Gray believes D.C. will be ready.
“By 2050, our transportation system will have changed remarkably. We’ll be relying on energy sources that won’t pollute the environment. Our waterways will be swimmable and fishable, and every child in our public education system will be able to talk about sustainability,” he said.