Climate Action Plan preview shows roadmap to carbon neutrality


Aurora Sharrard, Pitt’s director of sustainability, and Melissa Bilec, a faculty member in civil and environmental engineering, on March 4 gave members of the Pitt community a preview of the University’s first Climate Action Plan, which is nearly complete.

Dean Jimmy Martin of the Swanson School of Engineering said the plan was developed “largely because of the work of not only partners from MCSI (Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation), but also from many members in the School of Engineering. And so, it is an example again, of engineers providing solutions for society.”

The Climate Action Plan is largely centered around meeting the goal Pitt has set of being carbon neutral by 2037, the University’s 250th anniversary. To meet that goal, Pitt first had to determine the sources of its greenhouse gas emissions.

Bilec, who’s also deputy director of the Mascaro Center, gave a shout out to several former and current graduate students who helped compile the University’s first greenhouse gas emissions inventories. The process looked at not just emissions from buildings, but also concentrations of people on campus, commuting and study abroad impacts, fleet fuel usage and even what types of rental cars Pitt people were using when traveling.

The inventory also studied how much electricity Pitt produces and what actually goes into producing that electricity — how much coal, how much renewables, how much natural gas, she said.

“I will tell you, as a triple alumna (of Pitt) and as a faculty member, I learned more about the University during the greenhouse gas inventory than I ever learned during my whole time,” Bilec said.

All of this data is compiled and put into the Sustainability Indicator Management and Analysis Platform or SIMAP. Bilec said most universities use this tool, and all of the schools in the Western Pennsylvania Higher Education Climate Consortium, which Sharrard co-chairs, have agreed to use it.

The greenhouse gas inventory breaks emissions into three “scopes”:

  • Direct emissions from combustion. On the Oakland campus this includes the Carrillo Steam Plant, as well as things like natural gas from the boilers and cooking.

  • Indirect emissions, which are mostly from electricity purchased from Duquesne Light, but also include emissions associated with the Bellefield boiler plant, because it is a part of a university consortium.

  • Other indirect emissions, such as commuting and air travel. “We even know the amount of paper that’s purchased and the type of paper,” Bilec said.

Many universities only use the first two scopes in their inventories, Bilec said, but Pitt has decided to include all three.

“We take all this information — most of it’s carbon dioxide emission, some of it’s methane, some of it’s HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) — and convert that into carbon dioxide equivalence,” she said. This has allowed them to have concrete numbers to show how Pitt has decreased its emissions from 2008 until the latest inventory in 2019, even though the University has increased in population and gross square footage during that time. Bilec praised Facilities Management for helping make this decrease happen.  

The greenhouse gas inventories can be found on the Pitt Sustainability website, and there’s more information about how Pitt compares to other schools and how much Pitt composts on the Sustainability Dashboard. Sharrard said they’ll soon be adding a building specific energy and sustained water intensity dashboard.

Part of making a carbon neutral commitment in February of last year was creating an institutional structure to back up that pact — a carbon commitment committee was established in April 2020 — integrating everything that’s being done into the University’s academic mission and creating a Climate Action Plan, Sharrard said.

“As we reach for that carbon neutral goal, we need to make sure that we don’t just reach carbon neutrality but that we enhance our academic mission as part of that,” Sharrard said. “That we advance equitable outcomes both at the University and in our communities, and that we ensure economic resilience, because these are the true balance of sustainability.”

There are three strategies to get to carbon neutrality, she said.

1. Demand reductions, in buildings and infrastructure

Part of reducing demand is for all new construction to be carbon neutral by 2030. Pitt already has 14 LEED certified buildings and several more in the process of getting the certification. Pitt also is working toward a 50 percent reduction in energy and water use in existing buildings and transportation emissions by 2030. Sharrard said the University is ahead of pace to meet this goal. Bilec said that for fiscal year 2020, which ended in June 2020, “we were able to hit the lowest energy use per square foot area in a decade.”

“I always have to say efficiency and conservation first,” Sharrard said. “Renewables are great, they’re sexy, they’re fun to research and play around with. But the cheapest energy, the best carbon reduction is the one that we have just avoided.”

2.  Cleaning supply, both through purchased electricity, as well as Pitt’s steam and chilled water energy that is produced on campus.

In the short term, Pitt has been buying renewable energy certificates, “that gives us the ability to claim that we’re using renewable power, but it’s probably nationally sourced from Texas wind and places like that,” Sharrard said.

In the medium term, Pitt is asking its electric providers what percentage of its power comes from renewables. There’s also a request for proposals that will soon go out for new on-site photovoltaic arrays on the Pittsburgh campus. And it’s looking at how to make the chilled water and steam plants on campus more efficient.

The long-term plan includes previously announced projects to buy power from an as-yet-to-be-built hydroelectric plant on the Allegheny River and from a solar plant on the Allegheny-Beaver county border.

3. Making connections low carbon, both on campus and internationally through air travel.

“Commuting right now is about 16 percent of our entire greenhouse gas footprint,” Sharrard said. The goal is to reduce this by 3.4 percent. “We’re really trying to shift people into more active, shared and low-carbon modes there.”

Bilec said she was surprised to learn that air travel has been at least 20 percent each time they’ve done the greenhouse gas inventory. This includes study abroad, along with faculty and staff travel.

“We really are at the point where we have to start to think about what does air travel mean to us as a university and how does that really impact our overall mission,” she said. One thing they’re looking at are air travel offsets.

Sharrard said they plan to be very strategic about the offset strategy. “What we’re starting to realize here as an institution, is that this also represents an opportunity to invest. It’s not just about investing in carbon, it can also be about investing in our communities, it can be about investing in equity, it can be about investing in solutions that actually help us meet our academic mission, and we’re looking at what all those co-benefits are and what those opportunities are.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


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