Sustainability seminar helps advance UB’s climate action plan

carbon footprint drawing.

By DAVID HILL published in UBNow

Release date: June 4, 2021


Students in Nicholas Rajkovich’s Sustainability 601 course gave their presentations, shared their final reports and received their final grades for the spring semester seminar. Now, the real fun begins as the students’ work will be folded into UB’s climate action planning efforts.

The students, who were split into two groups, conducted a deep dive into two of the key prongs of UB’s 10 in 10, the university’s climate action plan that is guiding UB along its path toward achieving climate neutrality by 2030.

The graduate course aimed to bridge classroom-based instruction with experiential learning, giving students the opportunity to work on a project that will live on after they’ve completed the course, while honing their professional skills.

“You viewed this work as academic and as part of your curriculum, but I can guarantee you this product will be leveraged to advance our greater pathway toward climate neutrality,” UB Chief Sustainability Officer Ryan McPherson told the students before their final Zoom presentations in late May.

While the course was taught by a faculty member from the School of Architecture and Planning, the course also serves as a capstone for an advanced certificate for graduate students in the Department of Environment and Sustainability in the College of Arts and Sciences, and is a capstone for the master's in sustainability leadership.

Rajkovich approached UB Sustainability about the possibility of a graduate seminar on UB’s 10 in 10 after the climate action plan was unveiled last spring. In fall 2020, Rajkovich, an associate professor in the Department of Architecture, crafted a request for proposals in concert with key university senior leaders, which the students received on the first day of class in the spring. Their job this past semester was to respond to the RFP.

“It was like a real-world experience for them working with a company,” McPherson says.

They reviewed case studies and decision-making tools, as well as existing policies at peer universities, and examined state and federal programs and policies — all centered around putting a price on pollution and localizing carbon offsets, two of the most critical initiatives pertaining to UB’s climate action plan.

Students presented their findings in late May via Zoom. In attendance were School of Architecture and Planning faculty, members of UB’s 10 in 10 climate action committee and two key senior leaders and CAPtains of UB’s climate action work: Beth Corry, associate vice president for business services and controller, who chairs the Putting a Price on Pollution committee, and Bill McDonnell, associate vice provost for academic planning, who chairs the Carbon Offsets working group. Both Corry and McDonnell provided critical feedback and leadership to the students as they advanced their ideas and proposals over the entire semester.

The class’s carbon pricing group examined carbon-pricing strategies at five North American universities, including Cornell and the University of British Columbia, as well as Microsoft. Four of the six have implemented a carbon charge, while two use a proxy price, which isn’t paid but is instead used to inform financial decisions.

Carbon pricing is a system that requires polluters to pay when they emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, explained student Chris Platt. “Phasing in carbon pricing at UB would make the university accountable operationally and financially for the adverse impact on the climate,” Platt said.

Based on its review, this group recommended that UB implement a flat carbon charge that accounts for a range of emissions — also known as “scopes” — while employing a proxy price for emissions associated with air travel and commuting.

“We found this to be the most effective choice for large universities with many departments, schools and decentralized decision making,” Platt noted.

“Thank you for allowing us to do this work,” added student Rachel Grandits. “We learned a great deal on how to coordinate efforts to write this report about carbon pricing and we hope that this helps UB achieve its goal of carbon neutrality by 2030.”

For its part, the localized offsets student group looked at UB’s carbon emissions, measured in metric tons. In 2019, UB emitted 86,000 metric tons of CO2.

“Despite emissions reductions, one will also need to leverage carbon offsets to achieve climate neutrality,” said student Isabell Van Patten. “A carbon offset is a reduction of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in order to compensate for emissions generated by the university that cannot be reduced otherwise.” These include air travel and commuting to campus.

The group proposed achieving a 15% reduction, or 12,900 metric tons of CO2, in UB’s current net emissions through a trio of solutions. The first would sequester 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide through a tree-planting and urban forestry initiative. In addition, a community-focused, building-based solution focusing on residential weatherization could offset 1,450 metric tons.

“The students did a great job with their reports, which will serve as a catalyst to further the university’s climate action work,” said Derek Nichols with UB Sustainability.

global goals.

Sustainable Development Goals:

9. Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure 

11. Sustainable Cities & Communities 

13. Climate Action