Campus News, Research

What is Sustainable Carolina?

Sustainable Carolina combines the University’s efforts to steadily reduce its environmental footprint through operational improvements, research and students’ experiential learning.

Along Chapel Hill’s Bolin Creek, students from Carolina’s Sustainable Triangle Field Site measure water levels and gather data. Junior Ashlynne Hobcroft uses a ruler to gather measurements as sophomore Annabel Grocott (second from left) records data and juniors Ella Thomas (far left) and Gabriela Martinez (far right) hold the tape measure. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)
Along Chapel Hill’s Bolin Creek, students from Carolina’s Sustainable Triangle Field Site measure water levels and gather data. Junior Ashlynne Hobcroft uses a yardstick to measure as sophomore Annabel Grocott (second from left) records data and juniors Ella Thomas (far left) and Gabriela Martinez (far right) stretch out a tape measure. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Annabel Grocott sloshes her rain boots through Chapel Hill’s Battle Branch Creek while checking sensors that log water level and temperature. Downstream a bit, Ashlynne Hobcroft swings a sledgehammer to stake another sensor, and Gabriela Martinez stretches a measuring tape across the stream channel to determine its geometry.

The students from Carolina’s Sustainable Triangle Field Site are gathering data that will inform the University’s and the Town of Chapel Hill’s shared sustainability efforts.

A few hundred feet away, students step onto a Chapel Hill Transit electric bus funded by a student-fee allocation from a Carolina student group, Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee. Melanie Elliott, an analyst with Sustainable Carolina and an adviser to RESPC, modeled the potential emission reductions and reduced energy demands of such buses. Because the campus community uses the bus system extensively, Carolina claims 62% of Chapel Hill Transit emissions. Elliott’s work will help the University reduce its share.

The students, RESPC and Elliott illustrate how Sustainable Carolina, which launched in 2020, combines and advances the University’s sustainability activities operationally and academically.

The University is reducing its effects on the environment by working toward three goals: net zero water usage, zero waste to landfills and net zero greenhouse gas emissions. The initiative resides administratively in the UNC Institute for the Environment. There, faculty and professionals collaborate with campus partners in an interdisciplinary effort to improve societal well-being, ecological integrity and economic prosperity.

Faculty member Mike Piehler is in charge of campus sustainability. “We’ve melded all of the past sustainability efforts into Sustainable Carolina, which will make us more efficient and effective at connecting with every facet of campus.”

portrait of Mike Piehler

Mike Piehler

The first faculty member to serve as chief sustainability officer, Piehler is director of the Institute for the Environment and a professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ earth, marine and environmental sciences department. He is also a professor in the environmental sciences and engineering department in the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

“That changes how it looks and how it operates and opens up new opportunities,” he said.

Besides his administrative duties on the operations side, Piehler oversees an active research program, works on sustainability in a lab with graduate students and teaches in the Sustainable Triangle Field Site.

The launch included a new Carolina Sustainability Council comprised of faculty, staff and students with broad expertise and perspectives. The council sets goals, tracks progress, seeks collaboration and innovation and advises Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz and his cabinet on sustainability efforts.

The operations side of Sustainable Carolina

Sustainable Carolina connects operations and academics. “Operations is where the action is in terms of doing the things that will advance our sustainability,” Piehler said. “Enhancing the connection to Carolina’s amazing research, education and service gives us a great platform to be thoughtful and creative about sustainability solutions.”

The operations side does a great job “keeping the trains running on time,” Piehler said. “But we’re envisioning what new trains might look like. The broad theme is having a vision and fulfilling it by engaging all of our communities and finding a way to operationalize the vision.”

That engagement contributed to a new Climate Action Plan, which outlines the University’s sustainability goals and plans for achieving them. Since an original climate action plan of 2009, Carolina has implemented 75% of that plan’s near-term strategies. In the new plan, reaching carbon neutrality a decade earlier than previously planned (by 2040) is a goal.

Another goal is eliminating coal use as quickly as it is technically and financially feasible. The report states that by 2020, Carolina had reduced coal use by 52% since 2007, with 18% and 17% reductions in 2019 and 2020. “That’s not attributable to the pandemic because steam demand from the hospital was greater than ever,” Piehler said.

The report also shows that Carolina’s actions decreased greenhouse gas emissions 40% despite increases of 27% in campus square footage and 9% increase in campus population. The plan contains tables explaining strategies and corresponding emissions reductions. Reductions that have not yet been calculated are noted as “to be determined.”

Sustainable Carolina staff meticulously track sustainability metrics, while expanding analysis. Piehler said the report’s metrics and data come from innovative work by former staff member Adam Long and Elliott. Elliott tracks metrics from campus sources, including Energy Management’s data on energy efficiency and use, stationary combustion emissions and water use. The tracking, reports and analyses help the University prepare for 2040 — to look at target areas like travel emissions and apply thoughtful ways to offset them.

Sustainability analysts Melanie Elliott and R.E.S.P.E.C. co-chair Ben Brown stand beside an electric bus funded by student fees.

Sustainability analyst Melanie Elliott, right, and RESPC co-chair Ben Brown stand beside a Chapel Hill Transit electric bus funded by student fees. Their work is helping Carolina reduce emissions. Elliott tracks metrics from campus, including Energy Management’s data on energy efficiency and use, stationary combustion emissions and water use. The tracking, reports and analyses help the University prepare for 2040 — to look at target areas like travel emissions and apply thoughtful ways to offset them. (Abigail Brewer/Sustainable Carolina)

A 2021 Sustainability Report points to improvements resulting from Carolina’s action, Piehler said. “A great amount of work, for instance, to restore burners created a shift to natural gas as a larger proportion of the University’s fuel,” he said.

Piehler said that Carolina aspires to the North Carolina Governor’s Executive Order 80, which calls for a 40% reduction in greenhouse emissions. Through a comprehensive greenhouse gas inventory, Sustainable Carolina staff know the locations of the University’s emissions. “The information allows us to be strategic and specific about which sources we target,” Piehler said. The inventory tracks emissions from transportation and commuting, air travel, stationary combustion, the University vehicle fleet and other sources.

“It shows progress and gives a clear-eyed look at things like travel. We can’t be a great University without faculty and students traveling. Can we do it thoughtfully? Hopefully. But that’s an emission that we’re probably going to have to, in the end, offset.”

The academic side of Sustainable Carolina

Sustainable Carolina benefits from its place in a teaching and learning environment. “It’s a feedback loop,” Piehler said. “We’re set up to respond to and support academic and research activities.”

In the new framework, students are engaged in on-campus experiential opportunities through programs such as the EcoStudio program, and members of Sustainable Carolina serve as advisers for capstone classes. “The University functions like a small town, and students have infinite ways to contribute ideas to improve how the University operates,” Piehler said.

Experiential education also includes the Green Office program and the Sustainable Triangle Field Site, in which a cohort of students learn about sustainability in urban design, green architecture, public health, city planning and environmental decision making.

“We are absolutely excited about and yet concerned about the future. We know the actions needed to deal with our challenges. Because we are the University’s vision for sustainability, we’re grounded in reality,” Piehler said. “Infrastructure changes are big challenges. Passing that reality on to tomorrow’s leaders, our students, is really valuable.”

What students do in the Sustainable Triangle Field Site directly connects to Carolina’s sustainability ventures. Students and faculty are working with Town of Chapel Hill personnel to understand why flooding occurs along Booker Creek. “It’s a shared mission. We have a great relationship with Chapel Hill’s sustainability operation,” Piehler said. “The town’s sustainability officer John Richardson and I meet every month. We want to be sure that, whether good or bad, information is shared in a rigorous way so that we know what one another is doing, what we’re happy or worried about, and can meet challenges together.”

Hand writing in a notebook. Sophomore Anabel Grocott records data from Chapel HIll's Bolin Creek for a class capstone project to help the town understand the creek's tendency to flood. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Sophomore Annabel Grocott records data collected by students that will help them and the Town of Chapel Hill alleviate flooding along Bolin Creek. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Sustainable Carolina also joined the Orange Water and Sewer Authority to form a group to discuss research on water issues. Faculty are learning more about OWASA’s challenges and engaging through the field site. “We hope that effort will grow and include more students to become a popular on-campus experience,” Piehler said.

Students also have opportunities through the Sustainability Council and student organizations. The student-focused sustainability stewards program will be revamped in fall 2022.

“The main message is that there is plenty to do,” Piehler said. “We are not perfect, but we are working hard. We’ve made demonstrable progress and we have a good plan to meet the challenges.”