In New York City, buildings produce 70% of all carbon emissions. But what exactly does that mean, and how does Northwestern measure up? Buildings produce emissions when we use electricity, heating or natural gas, such as when you're cooking. With the number of buildings in a city, that can quickly add up. As a part of New York’s Climate Mobilization Act, lawmakers passed a bill that requires all buildings to reduce their carbon footprint and includes fines for buildings that do not meet requirements.

By ensuring that building emissions are set at a cap, the city hopes to reduce its carbon footprint 40% by 2030. The emissions cap requires that each square foot of a building emits no more than 4.53 kilograms of CO2, or nearly the equivalent of driving a car for 10 minutes. That’s enough time to zoom from the Rock to the 24-hour IHOP on Howard.

According to a 2018 report by sustainNU, around 80% of Northwestern’s emissions come from buildings. SustainNU has outlined a Strategic Sustainability Plan with one of the key program areas being “built environment.”

One of sustainNU’s infrastructure goals in the built environment area is to “incorporate energy efficient and renewable energy technologies into design and construction standards and equipment specifications by 2018.”

“[Buildings] are one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gases. It’s not technically the building itself, but it’s the use of the building, the operation of the building, so buildings consume energy,” Julie Cahillane, sustainNU’s Sustainability Associate Director, said. “Looking at our building portfolio is one of the ways that we can truly address energy use and reducing that.”

According to Julie Cahillane, sustainNU’s Sustainability Director, all new buildings must be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified. This is a system to rate eco-friendliness of buildings, and LEED certified buildings typically consume less energy. Because they use less energy, these buildings are also cost-saving. Both Kresge Centennial Hall and Kellogg Global Hub are platinum certified, which is the highest level of LEED certification.

Kresge Hall. Photo by Sophia Lo / North by Northwestern

SustainNU’s website explains there are showers in Kresge so that biking to work is a feasible option (if you know where they are, please message me because I am dying to know but not enough to look around myself). More significantly, Kresge has solar panels on its roof, which is also optimized to “reduce the effects of the urban heat island.”

In a similar vein, New Kellogg’s glass windows and walls aren’t purely for the aesthetic. The windows are coated with a substance that keeps the building warm in the winter and cool in the summer, preventing energy loss. In addition to conserving heat, the building was designed to conserve water by including fixtures with low-flow plumbing in the bathrooms and kitchens.

Ultimately, these efforts are part of Northwestern’s plan to go carbon neutral by 2050. SustainNU says students also should be mindful of their energy consumption.

“I think it’s really critical for students to educate themselves, to understand and be aware of what the campus is doing around sustainability and learn to think about their own behaviors and what they can do to help support reduced emissions,” said Cahillane.

Students can take small steps to reduce building emissions by simply turning off the lights or unplugging devices or equipment when they’re not in use. Although the university has a long way to go, decreasing carbon emissions in its buildings is a step in the green direction.