Energy & Emissions

Strategic Plan and Paris Agreement

In February 2016, Washington University in St. Louis published its updated Strategic Plan for Sustainable Operations. This plan outlines strategies for setting a clear path toward a more sustainable campus through changes to university operations in a number of sectors of campus life. The plan was published with the goal of clearly communicating university goals and creating a culture of sustainability and accountability throughout campus.

The release of the plan followed the signing of the Paris Agreement in December of 2015. This agreement, which was signed by 195 countries at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), charted a new course in the global effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the widespread impacts of climate change. The Paris Agreement utilizes a new structure for holding parties accountable for their emissions and efforts in mitigation and adaptation, stressing the importance of party capacity and responsibility, making ambitious agreements, and allowing for transparency throughout the process.

The Paris Agreement is centered on the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR), which is the acknowledgement that parties (countries) have different levels of responsibility for the climate problem and also have varying abilities to contribute to its solution. Using this concept, parties were classified as either developed or developing and were assigned different responsibilities accordingly. While the details of each party’s role are dependent on their assigned status, all countries were committed to report regularly on their emissions to the best of their ability and submit new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) every five years. These NDCs are emission reduction goals set by each country and are to become more ambitious with each five-year cycle. As a part of the reporting and goal-setting process, third-party expert audits will be conducted to ensure that parties are being transparent and forthcoming in their reporting of both their progress and their future capabilities.

While the Paris Agreement is a global treaty with decision makers acting on the national and international level, local governments and institutions had a significant role in shaping the agreement and will be meaningfully impacted by the national changes that will be made in order to meet NDCs. Washington University’s Strategic Plan for Sustainable Operations is closely aligned with the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement, and represents the type of key local commitments to a sustainable future that are being made by local stakeholders worldwide.

In its updated 2015-2020 plan, WashU commits itself to reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. This reduction is to include all new growth on the Danforth and School of Medicine campuses, a detail that was not included in the previous 2010-2015 plan. This change nearly doubles the amount of emissions reductions to be made by the university and is consistent with the Paris Agreement’s expectation that new commitments “represent a progression” beyond previous ones.

Also aligned with the Paris Agreement goals are the university’s efforts to create a more transparent environment around its energy usage and emissions. In the plan, the university has set a goal to democratize energy data, to send energy use reports to schools and departments, and to undergo biennial, third-party energy audits to benchmark against peer institutions. This transparency and comparison between parties was included in the Paris Agreement as a mechanism to encourage countries to be more ambitious and to hold each other accountable for their progress and is a concept that can be scaled down to higher education institutions.

Paired with the concepts of accountability and transparency in the Paris Agreement is that of creating a culture of understanding around climate-friendly operations and actions. In creating such a culture, countries will be able to develop the political will to bring about the changes needed to meet their commitments. Similarly, the university relies heavily on political will within the institution to create meaningful change. By committing itself to developing long-term low emissions development strategies such as building efficiency, construction, and design standards and by making sustainability a focal point of campus life, the university is beginning to make considerations of climate-related impacts a routine part of campus operations.

Washington University’s efforts to forge partnerships with other universities and institutions to further research and outreach initiatives in the realm of sustainability are also closely aligned with the goal of the Paris Agreement. As a part of the CBDR concept, collaboration and the transfer of technology, funds, and support are a key part of mitigation and adaptation strategies under the Paris Agreement. While these partnerships are a powerful tool to create new relationships and build infrastructure for further ventures, the university has room to grow in its involvement in sustainable development and clean energy projects outside of the university. In keeping with the spirit of the Paris Agreement, the university could expand its initiatives to reach members of the greater St. Louis community and beyond. This expansion is already underway, with the establishment of an Environmental Justice internship position in the Office of Sustainability and planning for a regional conference to address climate issues with other key stakeholders in the St. Louis area.

This article was written by Taylor Blevin, a Student Associate on our Renewable Energy team. Read her bio.