Sustainable Missoula: Amid change, UM maintains commitment to carbon neutrality

Student sustainability ambassadors work at a table on the Oval during Earth Week on the University of Montana campus. (Courtesy photo)

The University of Montana has seen its share of change in the past year. New university president? Check. New set of institutional values? Check. New provost, new vice president for administration and finance. New strategic plan? Almost!

As the staff member dedicated to the university’s carbon neutrality commitment, campus waste diversion and reduction goals, and the assessment and measurement of our sustainability progress, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what all this change means for UM’s sustainability efforts.

The passion and commitment to sustainability has not diminished across our campus community with all of this change. I continue to spend much of my time working closely with students on their class projects, internships, capstones and independent studies that focus on campus-related and global sustainability issues.

Environmental and sustainability-related academic programs rose to the top in our recent program prioritization process, with many identified as having potential for development and growth. We have many students, faculty and staff committed to sustainability and with that, a tremendous opportunity to steward that piece of our institutional identity.

Even with all of these amazing campus partners and the successes of the past 10 years, we are still up against a formidable challenge that we are unlikely to meet: carbon neutrality by 2020. Rather than go into detail about why this is (hint: it involves common trends across higher ed institutions, like energy conservation being outpaced by expanding square footage and reluctance to invest in on-site, large-scale renewables), I’d like to focus on the future of our sustainability efforts and how we’re measuring progress beyond just greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

STARS is a sustainability reporting tool built specifically for colleges and universities. As of spring 2018, 889 institutions are using STARS to assess their campus wide sustainability efforts. In 2014, UM was the first university in the Northern Rockies to participate in STARS and we recently resubmitted an updated report that earned us a bronze rating.

For comparison, Gonzaga University and South Dakota State University are also bronze STARS institutions, while Colorado State University, University of New Hampshire, and Stanford University are the only institutions to earn platinum STARS ratings. We were two points shy of a silver rating in our 2017 report.

I’m proud of the efforts reflected in our STARS report and excited to envision where it can take us. Since an institution’s STARS rating lasts 3 years, UM will need to resubmit in summer 2020. The goal I have proposed to our campus sustainability committee (and that they support) is that we earn a gold STARS rating with our 2020 submission. We will only achieve this goal with the support and participation of UM students, faculty, staff and administration.

Aiming for gold doesn’t get us off the hook with our 2020 carbon neutrality commitment; the STARS tool includes assessing an institution’s real emissions reductions relative to its baseline measurement year. But in addition, STARS also measures a university’s integration of sustainability concepts into curricula and research, grounds and building management strategies, purchasing, solid waste reduction efforts, diversity and inclusion initiatives, affordability and accessibility, and more. Its metrics are wide AND deep and require the participation of campus stakeholders in areas not traditionally seen as sustainability-related at all.

Eva Rocke is the staff member responsible for meeting the University of Montana’s carbon neutrality commitment, campus waste diversion and reduction goals, and the assessment and measurement of our sustainability progress. This column is part of a 2018 weekly Missoula Current series, Sustainable Missoula, which highlights community sustainability efforts.