How does Northwestern's sustainability plan measure up?

SustainNU, a campus-wide initiative through the Office of Sustainability, takes steps to mitigate Northwestern’s role in climate change and make campus as green as possible. Among the initiative’s several proposals, the Office is focusing on plans to decrease the prevalence of single-use plastic bottles and commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In 2017, Northwestern published its first Strategic Sustainability Plan, which outlined the school’s policy goals to reduce its contribution to climate change. The plan focuses on five main areas of change: University infrastructure, transportation, resource conservation, experiential learning and communication and engagement. The plan also serves as a guideline for sustainability efforts in the coming years.

The Strategic Sustainability Plan outlines how the school seeks to incorporate sustainability in day-to- day operations. Regarding clean transportation, the University pledges to increase the community’s use of public transportation by 5 percent by 2021 and eliminate the greenhouse gas emissions from the campus shuttle fleet by 2030. Other initiatives include reducing energy consumption at Northwestern by 20 percent of 2010 levels, diverting 50 percent of total waste to places other than landfills and improving students’ “sustainability literacy.”

Rankings and reviews from sustainability critics reflect Northwestern’s recent strides and those yet to be made. In 2016, Northwestern was awarded Bicycle Friendly University Silver status by the League of American Bicyclists. Since sustainNU efforts began in 2017, Northwestern has received a 95 out of 99 score in The Princeton Review’s “Sustainability Green Rating,” in addition to being named an Energy Star Partner by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. In 2017, Northwestern ranked No. 31 on the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools” list, which measures universities’ sustainability efforts. By 2019, however, Northwestern fell to No. 123 out of 282.

Despite formalized efforts through sustainNU, pressure from student groups indicates Northwestern still has much work to do to become a completely sustainable and environmentally sound campus. Earlier this month, the Northwestern board of trustees rejected a proposal from student group Fossil Free Northwestern, which demanded that the school divest from all of its financial holdings in the fossil fuel industry.

Additionally, despite its anti-plastic bottle initiative, sustainNU has done little to combat the plastic water bottles that are sold in every on-campus store. These lapses, among others, demonstrate that Northwestern’s campus-wide environmental impact extends far beyond the bounds of Sheridan Road and Lincoln Street.

*Additional reporting by Samara Lipman.