USF and sustainability: a status report on the Climate Action Plan

USF announced carbon neutrality based on controversial investments in carbon offsets in

USF is coming up on the 10 year interim goal set by the 2014 University of San Francisco Climate Action Plan (CAP), a 63-page document with guidelines on how to reach carbon neutrality on campus by 2050. But how closely has the University adhered to the proposal’s suggestions? 

Since the CAP’s introduction, the Hilltop has seen several sustainability initiatives on campus: the establishment of the Office of Sustainability, the introduction of a zero waste coordinator, as well as the integration of sustainability into curricula through more environmentally focused course offerings. 

However, with numerous construction projects underway and the University’s controversial decision to purchase carbon offsets in 2019, USF is falling behind on many of the CAP’s proposed sustainability goals.

Climate Action Plan

The CAP’s central purpose is to cultivate campus-wide behavioral changes in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and uphold USF’s commitment to social justice. 

According to the CAP’s “Climate in Context” section, the initiative came to be after former-USF President Steven Privett, S.J, signed the University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) in 2009. The commitment pledged the University, along with other American universities, to prepare a climate action plan with the ultimate goal of reaching carbon neutrality, but did not specify action steps. 

Environmental studies professor Stephen Zavestoski joined the Climate Action Task Force in response to the University’s inaction. “When I discovered that the President had signed onto these [commitments], yet never formed a task force or taken any steps to fulfill our obligations, it seemed like we needed to be doing this because we had committed to it,” he said.

In 2012, the Climate Action Task Force expanded into the University Sustainability Council, which drafted the CAP for two years until it was produced in 2014. According to Stephanie Siehr, director of the environmental management graduate program and technical lead on the 2014 Sustainability Council, the CAP then went through a formal review and approval process by the USF President. The group no longer exists, despite the recommendation of the CAP to establish a permanent council. 

The document outlines specific steps towards facilitating sustainable practices on campus and sets interim targets for an ultimate goal of climate neutrality by 2050. Like carbon neutrality, climate neutrality occurs when a company’s overall emissions output equates to net-zero, but expands upon the premise by including the elimination of other harmful gasses beyond carbon, like methane. 

However, these 10 year interim goals have not been formally assessed by the University. Siehr said, “Since the CAP working group was disbanded, responsibility for implementing the CAP and monitoring progress has been with USF facilities.” 

She continued, “While USF did hire a full-time Sustainability Coordinator, we need a more robust institutional structure — with engagement from across the USF community — to do better.” 

Sustainability Coordinator Richard Hsu celebrates Earth Day at an informational booth with
the Office of Sustainability. PHOTO BY ZOE BINDER/SF FOGHORN

Richard Hsu is USF’s first Sustainability Coordinator and has assumed the position since it was created in 2015. 

By the end of this year, the CAP strived to decrease carbon emissions by 25% and become at least 40% carbon neutral. In order to achieve these goals, the initiative aimed to give “highest priority to actions that address the cause of the emission problem on campus… as a last resort offsetting emissions through off-site carbon saving.” The different strategies through which to achieve carbon neutrality are prioritized and described as follows: 

  1. Conserve energy and carbon (reduce the demand of) 
  2. Enhance efficiency (reduce intensity) 
  3. Decarbonize supply (create more opportunities for renewable energy) 
  4. Invest in offsets (reduce carbon emissions elsewhere) 

The plan includes suggestions for encouraging waste minimization, water conservation, and the emphasis of sustainability in academics in order to achieve the ultimate goal. 

For waste minimization, the initiative proposes increasing the number of recycling and compost bins in common spaces and conducting waste characterization studies, which identify the amount of paper, food waste, etc. that is discarded into the waste stream. 

As a more general effort towards achieving sustainability, the CAP calls for the establishment of the Office of Sustainability on campus and the inclusion of academics that ensure “current and future students graduate with an understanding of the sustainability challenge and the ability to think critically about their role in addressing it.” 

One ongoing campus effort, suggested in the CAP, are the Gold and Green campaigns, which promote water conservation and waste reduction. Due to these campaigns, “our domestic irrigation water use last year was down 23% and 40% respectively, and compared to 2014, our overall waste generation was down 27%,” said Hsu. 

One aspect of the campaigns involves making adjustments to promote sustainable methods of commuting to campus. There are five BayWheels bikeshare docking stations next to campus, improved bike corridors along Anza Street and Masonic Avenue, and sixteen new electric vehicle charging ports on campus. 

Dana Zartner, director of faculty experience and global engagement at the Honors College, told the Foghorn, “I came to USF in 2012, and I can say there is substantially more focus on issues of sustainability, climate change, and environmental justice both in the College of Arts and Sciences and the university as a whole when I started.” 

“Quite a number of faculty have been hired whose focus is on environmental issues,” Zartner continued. “There are many more classes with an environmental focus in a number of areas, and also more extracurricular opportunities, from immersion programs, to working in the USF sustainability office, to the USF food pantry and community garden.”

Office of Sustainability

One recommendation of the CAP that still exists today is the Office of Sustainability which employs several student workers, such as Malia Boksanski, a third-year environmental science major who has worked at the office since 2021. “We work a lot on improving USF’s zero waste efforts, so you may see us doing weekly neighborhood cleanups around campus as well as peer education near the cafeteria bins,” Boksanski said. “Also, once a month we write blog posts and reports on a sustainability topic of our choice which can be found on the Office of Sustainability Website.” 

“In my opinion, our greatest accomplishment is getting more students aware and involved with sustainability efforts on campus,” said Boksanski. 

In addition to the Office of Sustainability and sustainability coordinator, the University introduced the position of the zero waste coordinator, which is occupied by Shereen Sheikhhassan. “We have not improved in the context of waste diversion since the pandemic hit. This is why I am here,” Sheikhhassan said.

“I am in the process of brainstorming more engaging workshops that have creative resolutions while informing the participant about waste and will be working alongside our staff to train and verbally confirm what goes where,” she continued. “It is ultimately up to the person throwing the material away to be aware of what they are discarding and where the appropriate place for that material is. However, we are hoping to provide all the tools necessary to prepare the consumer to divert properly.” 

Carbon Neutrality 

As outlined in the CAP, USF had a goal of 40% carbon neutrality by 2023 and 2050 for full climate neutrality. USF claimed full carbon neutrality in 2019, 31 years ahead of schedule. However, this claim has been met with some controversy, as USF claimed neutrality through its decision to purchase carbon offsets, which are investments in offsite projects that essentially “cancel out” the University’s emissions by removing carbon from the air. This means that the University did not have to cut back on their own emissions, they just pledged to pay for their damages. 

“In 2019, USF offsets supported a fuel switch to biomass for thermal energy projects in Mississippi, landfill gas capture projects across the U.S, and renewable energy projects in India,” said Hsu. “These projects were verified through the Verified Carbon Standard or the Climate Action Reserve.” 

The CAP describes offsets as a last resort option to achieving carbon neutrality, with energy and conservation efforts ranked with higher priority, leading Zavestoski to question the full neutrality claim. “All of a sudden [in 2019], it was in the USF magazine website, they introduced this little video promoting how great it was that USF could achieve this and a number of us were like, ‘wait a second, actually the university has done almost nothing to reduce its carbon footprint.’” said Zavestoski. 

“We had to dig into it, it turned out that the associate vice provost for business and finance, Charlie Cross, had discovered that he could get some cheap carbon offset credits,” Zavestoski continued. “And he bought those and essentially claimed that he bought enough to cancel out our emissions.” 

There are three different scopes of emissions. Scope one emissions consist of natural gas reserved for heat and power, scope two includes purchased electricity, and scope three pertains to the emissions derived from faculty, staff, students, air travel, and etc. 

According to Cross, the most significant portion of the emissions (50%) comes from the scope three sources, with scope one contributing 28% to the total output and scope two making up 22% of total emissions. 

In a statement to the Foghorn, Cross maintained that the university has decreased energy usage and that the offset purchases were necessary, despite ongoing sustainability efforts on campus. “USF has reduced its overall energy consumption significantly in the last decade and continues to seek ways to reduce it further,” he said. “However, the carbon emissions are still at 22,500 metric tons, down from 27,000+ tons pre-pandemic.”

“It’s like going to confession, you know, asking for forgiveness saying a few Hail Marys and going back out and continuing to sin instead of really making the change and changing the behavior,” said Siehr.

“In the plan we very clearly stated that for those emissions we can’t directly control, like air travel, we should invest in offset,” Siehr continued. “And instead, they were like, ‘Oh, offsets are cheap. Let’s just buy offsets for everything.’” 

The purchasing of offsets is a common strategy employed by universities and corporations striving to achieve carbon neutrality. As of 2023, there are only 11 colleges, including USF, recognized by Second Nature that have claimed carbon neutrality and in data from GreenerU in which each college self-reported their strategies for achieving neutrality, every one disclosed purchasing offsets. 

The amount of offsets purchased varies by university. According to the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) report, a method of documenting sustainability progress, from Colgate University, the school entered into an agreement which commits them to purchasing 5,000 tons offsets a year for 15 or 75,000 tons in offsets total. Colorado College, on the other hand, only reported a purchase of 2,500 tons of offsets on their STARS report. USF has yet to submit a STARS report. 

Construction Projects

On campus, there are currently several large-scale construction projects in the works, including the assembly of a new athletics facility, and pipe installation under Gleeson Plaza. 

Due to the housing of the Office of Sustainability in the Facilities Operations umbrella, the Facilities team is responsible for ensuring the implementation and oversight of the CAP’s guidelines. However, Zavestoski argued that project management has not fully assumed their responsibilities. “Facilities management is responsible for all new construction on campus,” said Zavestoski. “They were responsible for developing the plan for the new Lone Mountain East housing and went forward with these plans without ever consulting the Climate Action Plan and they never reached out to any of the people who worked on it.” 

“They built into the plans for Lone Mountain East gas-powered turbines,” he continued, “locking into that builds a significant investment in the burning of fossil fuels for the indefinite future.” 

Additionally, the Lone Mountain East (LME) housing is not Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certified, like the Lo Schiavo Science Center constructed in 2013. According to Heather Hickman Holland,  Director of Operations for Facilities Management, the lack of certification is because “USF has determined that the added value of the LEED certificate does not merit the additional cost to the project.” 

Hickman Holland said that even without the official LEED certification, facilities are still working to ensure the construction is meeting LEED’s sustainability requirements. “USF complies with state and city building codes, which effectively ensures our new construction meets the LEED Silver standard.” 

She continued, “As part of the LME housing project, USF exceeded the permitting requirements for storm water diversion, voluntarily increasing the diversion capacity of the installed system.” 

In response to Zavestoski’s claim, Hickman Holland said, “The College of Arts & Sciences Sustainability Working Group stopped meeting on a regular basis in 2018. USF’s Sustainability Coordinator attended those meetings. 

“Since 2018, there have been a number of other groups. Most recently, after the Laudato Sí challenge was issued, the One Earth Initiative and Laudato Sí working groups have taken the lead on a number of initiatives and discussions,” she said. “Facilities Operations is represented in those current working groups. Though there has been significant progress made on the goals of the CAP since it was written in 2014, there is still more work to be done.”  

When asked if the Facilities Operations team was currently working with any third party in order to facilitate sustainable construction practices, Hickman Holland said, “Not exactly. The architects, engineers, and builders used for USF capital projects all have significant experience in sustainable design.” 

She continued, “From time to time, consultants are tasked with specific projects, but there is no ongoing relationship with a sustainable construction consultant.” 

Upcoming Initiatives 

Moving forward, a new initiative is in the works to address sustainability on campus: the One Earth Initiative (OEI). The initiative was established in the spring of 2022 headed by Provost Oparah, operating on a three year plan which references the University strategic plan, which, like the CAP, focuses on integration of sustainability in education. The OEI also focuses on mobilizing  Pope Francis’ Laudato Sí encyclical, the idea of humanity caring for its “common home” — the Earth. “I believe the One Earth Initiative will revise, update, and expand the Climate Action Plan into a comprehensive sustainability plan,” said Hsu, also a member of the initiative.

The goals of the OEI seem to parallel those of the CAP, but aim to introduce different positions and strategies to ensure that the goals are actually seen through this time around. 

According to environmental studies professor and OEI member Alice Kaswan, the proposal is pending approval from the University. “We expect it to be reviewed by higher USF administration later this spring or summer, and hope to have our action plan approved by Fall 2023,” Kaswan said. Despite not being fully followed through, the CAP underwent a similar process of formal approval. 

“For USF this is an important step because we have been lacking a holistic approach, in which different subjects and different areas concerning sustainability are integrated,” said philosophy Professor Gerard Kuperus, another member of the OEI group. “We hope to work towards offering an ecological community, in which we learn about the challenges ahead and offer ways to connect as a community with one another and the natural world that is our home.” 

The initiative has working groups that focus on four areas. Kuperus is head of the student experience and ecological spirituality and culture, while Kaswan oversees infrastructure and facilities as well as structural features. 

These changes aid in addressing areas of the CAP that were not followed through by the university. “While USF did hire a full-time Sustainability Coordinator, we need a more robust institutional structure — with engagement from across the USF community — to do better.” Siehr said. 

“Community, culture, and a sense of connectedness to one another and the Earth is at the heart of our endeavors,” said Kuperus. He also said the purpose of the student experience component is to “offer an experience that is synergizing the already existing areas of expertise at USF, in order to offer an education that emphasizes integral ecology, through interdisciplinary teaching.” 

“The OEI plan is less specific than the CAP. We can note, however, that we are proposing that the university take further steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Kaswan said. “By improving existing buildings’ energy efficiency, by supporting a pilot project for on-campus solar microgrids, by addressing transportation emissions from commuting, and by additional waste reduction steps.” 

One business item of the OEI is updating data collection in order to prepare for its first STARS report, which is a self-reporting database for universities to measure their sustainability efforts in categories of academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership. The report is not a traditional written report, but rather a collection of data organized in accordance with the STARS technical manual. Hsu said he expects to submit USF’s first STARS rating by the end of this year. 

Citing USF’s status as a “Bicycle Friendly University” by the League of American Bicyclists,  reduced water usage in landscaping through the introduction of turf, and rehabilitated roof-top solar generated energy systems, vice president of business and finance, Charlie Cross claimed “USF has reduced its overall energy consumption significantly in the last decade and continues to seek ways to reduce it further.” Without a STARS report, there is not a comprehensive review and measure of sustainability efforts. 

“I hope that all the recommendations in the original CAP are implemented,” Siehr said about the new initiatives. “For the next CAP, let’s engage the entire community and take the dramatic steps needed to protect our one and only planet.” 

The Foghorn will continue its coverage on USF’s sustainability actions, updates on the Climate Action Plan’s targets, and the “One Earth Initiative.” 

Nora Ward and Zoe Binder, both environmental studies majors, contributed to the reporting of this story.


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