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U.Va. sustainability efforts not trumped by potential funding cuts

Environmental policy changes, potential funding cuts will not affect Sustainability Plan on Grounds

Following the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Donald Trump, White House webpages relating to climate change immediately disappeared. Trump’s environmental stance during both the campaign and his first days of the presidency include a reaction against clean energy efforts — apparent in his pro-coal position, appointment of various fossil fuel supporters to his cabinet and open denial of climate change. However, any energy proposals made by Trump — in his first 100 days and beyond — most likely will not impact sustainability efforts at the University.

Donald Sundgren, Chief Facilities Officer for the University, said in an email statement the 2016-2020 Sustainability Plan presented in 2016 includes outlines for meeting 23 goals and over 100 actions aimed at achieving the Board of Visitors’ and the University’s sustainability commitment and goals.

Goals fall into three categories — Engage, Steward and Discover. Specific aims under each of these three categories include increasing sustainability awareness and engagement, reducing building energy and potable water use and enhancing sustainability education and research, respectively.

“[The Sustainability Plan] seeks to embody the U.Va. Sustainability Statement — Sustainability at the University of Virginia calls for collaboration and ingenuity to promote the wellbeing of the community, solve local and global challenges through scholarship and practice, educate ethical leaders and steward this special place,” Sundgren said.

Over 100 University staff, faculty and students developed the plan, taking into account feedback collected over several years from students, staff and faculty. According to the text of the Sustainability Plan itself, “It is responsive to the 2011 Sustainability Assessment and specifically the action item to ‘approve a comprehensive set of objective, measurable goals for sustainability designed to focus priorities and drive change.’”

The University Committee on Sustainability and Office for Sustainability take responsibility for overseeing implementation, tracking and reporting on progress of the plan’s goals.

“The [Sustainability Plan’s] goals seek to reduce the environmental, social and economic impacts of human activities on our climate, air quality, water quality and usage, other natural resources and human health through mobilization of our educational, operational and financial resources to achieve significant, quantifiable goals,” Sundgren said.

Sundgren does not foresee cuts in government funding aimed at environmental improvement affecting the timeline or completion of these goals. Funding for implementation of the plan comes not from government subsidies, but University sources — including savings due to energy efficiency and conservation projects.

“My personal goals, especially given the recent changes in national politics, is to focus locally and build community-based solutions,” Alex Wolz, fourth-year student in the Commerce School and student co-chair of the Energy Working Group, said in an email statement. “I believe this applies to U.Va. as well as the Charlottesville community. Many of us are realizing that very little in way of environmental action will be made on the federal level with the current administration, so we must act on a local scale.”

Sustainability-minded groups at the University include the Energy Working Group and the Student Council Committee on Sustainability. The Energy Working Group focuses on energy issues around Grounds, through efforts such as hosting a Renewable Energy Town Hall.

The Committee on Sustainability — which Wolz is also a member — focuses especially on sustainability issues on Grounds, including promoting composting or hosting ‘zero-waste’ events. While the former includes teams of students, staff and faculty, the latter group is comprised of solely students.

Like Sundgren, Wolz believes funding cuts will not curb efforts to create a greener, more sustainability-minded University.

“The transition to a zero-carbon energy future is irreversible,” Wolz says. “In many parts of the U.S., wind and solar-generated electricity is already equal, or even cheaper, than standard fossil-fuel generated electricity. Changes in energy subsidies or laws may slow the change, but it cannot be reversed.”

Wolz offers advice for students concerned about potential effects of the Trump administration on sustainability efforts locally and nationally.

“Do not be deterred by the inaction on the federal level on sustainability, because all major sustainability initiatives at U.Va. have been rooted in students’ movements and actions,” Wolz said. “From the Divestment movement, to composting initiatives and Earth Day at U.Va., these are all student-led initiatives, and no federal administration can stifle our efforts here on grounds.”