Cornell Sustainability History

Key Sustainability History at Cornell University

1985: Cornell University started a program called the Energy Conservation Initiative (ECI) in 1985 with the aim of reducing energy consumption through retrofits, replacements, and weatherization projects in buildings across campus. ECI projects are designed to optimize the energy efficiency of building automation and control systems, heat recovery systems, and lighting systems. ECI has kept campus energy use relatively flat since 2000, despite a 20% growth in campus building square footage. (Siegrist & Ferrieras, 2015). ECI remains a core strategy of the Climate Action Plan.
1992: Cornell University starts to compost non-food materials.
1997: Cornell started composting dining related waste.
November 14th, 1997: Cornell University officials and student leaders signed a statement to commit Cornell to promoting sustainable futures through education, campus sustainability, research, and stewardship of land.
2000: Cornell began utilizing Lake Source Cooling, which is an innovative technology to provide low-carbon cooling power, for the Ithaca campus in 2000. Lake Source Cooling has resulted in an 86% electrical energy reduction for campus cooling needs.
2001: KyotoNOW!, a climate activist group, and Sustainability Hub, a coordinating body for sustainable students and pre-existing organizations, are formed, as students continue to organize for sustainability and climate justice.
2001: Cornell Greens, a student group, holds a 7-day protest urging Cornell’s administration to adopt the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) levels seven to ten percent below 1990 levels by 2008, after President George W. Bush does not commit the United States to signing the agreement.

April 2001: Cornell becomes the first university in the nation to independently commit to endorsing and implementing the Kyoto Protocol. Harold D. Craft Jr., vice president for administration and chief financial officer at Cornell University, issued the statement committing Cornell to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
2002: The Society for Natural Resource Conservation (SNRC) began a campaign to reduce Cornell’s paper usage by working with CIT labs in 2002 to go from 30% to 100% recycled paper through their Tree-free Paper initiative. Other student led initiatives following this action to conserve environmental resources include charging users for printing, replacing banner or cover pages with watermarks, and changing campus printer's default setting from printing single pages to double sided pages.
2005: Student activism called for the forming of the first Cornell Sustainability Coordinator position, which was part of the Environmental Compliance Office. Cornell begins allocating free TCAT bus passes to all incoming students to promote the use of sustainable transportation to and from campus.
2005: Alice Cook House and Becker North were the first buildings in central New York state and the first residential halls to receive US Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
December 20, 2006: 90 solar panels were donated by Cornell trustee emeritus Dick Aubrecht ‘66, Ph.D. ‘70 to help Cornell expand the amount of renewable energy the campus power grid utilizes. Electricity generated from the 54 26-square-foot solar panels atop Day Hall provide enough energy to power the Cornell clock tower. The remaining donated solar panels were installed above the Cornell Store and at Shoals Marine Laboratory.
2007: Student Assembly hosts student vote for a Green Fee. Although 75% of undergraduates support a $5 semester fee to fund sustainability campus programs, the fee is never implemented.
February 22nd, 2007: President David Skorton signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (, now the Second Nature Carbon Commitment, which commits the campus to reaching climate neutrality, measuring greenhouse gases, and providing comprehensive sustainability education to all students - as well as public reporting on these goals.  Over 700 campuses have now signed the commitment.
Fall 2007: The Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future (ACSF) was established as the first research center in America that unites the three pillars of sustainability within one center at Cornell University.  
2008: Embedded throughout multiple initiatives within the report, Cornell University’s Master Plan for the Ithaca Campus establishes sustainability as a main priority for the university.
2008: Cornell's Trustees approved a policy that Ithaca Campus new construction projects over $5M total project cost must attain US Green Building Council's LEED(Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification at a minimum of Silver level, and that these projects must achieve a minimum 30% energy savings compared to the baseline established by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) 90.1, the national standard for energy efficient buildings.
2009: Cornell faculty, students, and staff developed Cornell’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), committing Cornell to campus carbon neutrality by 2050.
2009: The President’s Climate Commitment Implementation Committee (PCCIC) was formed after the enactment of Cornell’s Climate Action Plan. Currently called the President's Sustainable Campus Committee, the PSCC works to promote a culture of sustainability on campus through effective collaborations among staff, students, faculty, and regional partners, and it advocates for policies and programs that enhance Cornell’s commitment to being a living laboratory for the environmental, economic, and social dimensions of sustainability.

2010: The Cornell Campus Sustainability Office (CSO) was formed. The CSO is a section within Cornell’s Energy and Sustainability Department and works to empower, equip, and engage the Cornell community to catalyze a sustainable campus transformation.
2010: Cornell released its strategic plan which incorporated sustainability into campus initiatives and goals in a report titled:  Cornell University at its Sesquicentennial: A Strategic Plan 2010-2015.
2010: A year long sustainability initiative called CALS Green, an energy conservation competition between 6 CALS buildings, was focused on encouraging participants to commit to sustainable actions. Through encouraging environmentally conscious behaviors such as switching off lights, composting and closing fume hoods an estimated 2,000,000 lbs of carbon were eliminated from being added to the atmosphere and the university saved approximately $230,000.
2011: Cornell University releases their Sustainability Plan for the Ithaca Campus for 2011-2012.
2011: Cornell University first participates in Recyclemania, a national competition between colleges and universities to promote and improve efforts to reduce campus waste for the first time. During the 2012 Recyclemania competition, Cornell achieved a 30% reduction below the 2008 baseline GHG emissions. Cornell continues to engage in Recyclemania events every year.
March 21st, 2011: Achievement of Cornell’s “Beyond Coal” initiative, as the coal burning Central Energy Plant burned its last loads of coal and the university begins operating a highly efficient natural gas-fired combined heat and power plant (CHP). Cornell’s Combined Heat and Power Plant increased the efficiency of heating and electrifying the campus from 50% to 75%, and reduces annual CO2 emissions by 64,000 tons per year.
January 2012: Cornell earns its first STARS Gold rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). STARS, Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, allows colleges and universities to compare themselves to their peers through a self-reporting framework in addition to providing benchmarks for improvement.
September 2012: The Human Ecology Building completed in September 2012 received the highest certification of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum. In 2012 the U.S. Green Buildings Council ranked states for greatest new LEED Certifications. HEB greatly contributed to New York State’s #7 ranking and was the ninth building to receive a LEED rating on Cornell’s campus.
2013: The Campus Sustainability Office launches a ‘Think Big, Live Green’ (TBLG) Campaign, building off of the successful CALS Green competition the College of Engineering hosts the first pilot. TBLG is a university-wide sustainability engagement campaign that includes multiple complementary initiatives that educate and encourage sustainable behavior at Cornell. Some of these initiatives include the Building Dashboard, Green Office and Lab Certifications, and the EcoReps Course.

2013: In order to integrate sustainability into the workplace at Cornell, the Division of Human Resources revised the university-wide guidance document for employee expectations, “Skills for Success,” to include sustainability as an overarching principle.

Oct 2013: Cornell’s new website Building Dashboard, which provides raw, real-time energy data on campus buildings, was launched in an effort to educate the Cornell community about campus energy consumption reduction. The interactive website is used as an educational tool every year during the CSO’s fall Energy Smackdown campaign, however, is accessible to the community year round.
December 2013: All University assemblies pass resolutions calling for Cornell to accelerate the 2050 carbon neutrality goal to 2035. President David Skorton appointed Joseph Burns, Dean of the University Faculty, and KyuJung Whang, Vice President for Facilities Services, to establish a faculty and administrative working group to identify specific strategies and actions that can help achieve this new goal called the Climate Action Acceleration Working Group (AWG).
Spring 2014: Cornell releases a report titled: Climate Action Plan Update & Roadmap 2014-2015, outlining the actions it will undertake over the next two years to meet the “Neutrality, Innovation and Leadership” goals outlined in the original Climate Action Plan. This report additionally includes ideas of community resiliency and adaptation.
Fall 2014: Cornell’s new budget model, which went into effect FY 2014, makes each college/unit on campus responsible for its own utility bill. Campus-wide energy direct billing provides a compelling incentive for colleges and units to reduce their energy consumption and increase cost-saving measures, allowing users and energy staff to engage with data for campus engagement and behavior change programs. For example, an energy reduction competition in one college achieved an overall 17.1% energy reduction, and participating residence halls achieved a 16.2% reduction.
Fall 2014: Over one hundred students representing more than 40 environmental clubs, all seven undergraduate units, and a diverse array of majors, establish a new, cohesive environmental alliance at Cornell called ECO, the Environmental Collaborative. ECO is Cornell’s first formal environmental student council and has a formal partnership with the Campus Sustainability Office.
September 2014: The Snyder Road Solar Farm, Cornell’s first large-scale solar energy project consisting of 6,778 photovoltaic panels on 11-acres, goes live. Expecting to reduce the university’s annual GHG emissions by approximately 0.5% (650 metric tons per year) and generating about 1.4% (2.5 million kilowatt hours per year) of Cornell’s total electricity use, the addition of this solar farm and educational space continues Cornell’s plan of utilizing renewable energy sources in order to meet campus energy needs. This is the second renewable energy generating plant that Cornell has built; the first, a hydroelectric plant in Fall Creek Gorge that was built in 1904 and generates 2% of Cornell’s total electricity use.
January 29, 2015: President Skorton issued an official statement accelerating the Climate Action Plan by setting the goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035 instead of by 2050. Cornell released a comprehensive working group report titled Cornell Leadership for Carbon Neutrality presenting, “the key decisions and changes in behavior that should be initiated within the next 12 months in order for Cornell to raise the bar and strive for climate neutrality by 2035.” Within this report, the Climate Action Acceleration Working Group (AWG) recommended key actions to weave energy conservation and climate literacy into the operations of all the colleges and units. Other recommendations include pushing to strengthen building energy standards for all new construction and renovations, initiate feasibility studies of deep geothermal energy for campus heating, and seek out new strategic partnerships. The report also recommends that the university continue to support regional expansion of wind, bioenergy, hydropower, and solar energy.
July 2015: Cornell’s Forest Home Garage was announced to be the first university garage in the U.S. to achieve Green Garage Certification (GGC), a sustainability standard for existing and new parking facilities. The Green Parking Council (GPC) evaluates 48 elements of garage operation, programs, structure, and technology.
November 2015: Commissioned under President David Skorton and formalized under President Elizabeth Garrett, the formation of the Senior Leaders Climate Action Group (SLCAG) was created in order to lead the university's commitment to addressing climate change. At a President’s Sustainable Campus Committee meeting, President Elizabeth Garrett announced that “[Cornell]...should be focused on having a global impact in addressing [climate change] ...through our teaching and our research in a way that changes the world.”
2016: Cornell now uses the building automation (controls) to do lighting control instead of the industry standard of a separate, more expensive and harder to maintain proprietary lighting control system. A true paradigm change, this shift has won Cornell and our automated logic controls dealer Logical Control Solutions ‘project of the year’ international award for the recent redesign of Klarman Hall. This lighting solution has proved to be lower cost and more effective than traditional lighting control solutions and is now standard for all current and future project designs.
2016: Cornell’s Central Energy Plant previously created waste heat and used un-reclaimed potable water to prevent generator overheating until utilities engineer Garret Quist redesigned the system using heat exchanger-based water-cooling from the campus chilled-water network. By creating this feedback loop with existing systems, previously wasted energy is a part of a closed loop energy system. The new system, built for about $42,000, saves the university $24,000 annually in water, sewer and treatment costs, and reduces an annual 475,000-gallon water loss to zero.
2016: As part of Cornell’s Energy Conservation Initiative, in an effort to reduce energy consumption a campus-wide campaign to replace energy inefficient light bulbs with energy efficient LED light bulbs was completed and saves approximately 2.5 million kWh energy per year. Energy Conservation is a Neutrality goal within Cornell’s Climate Action Plan (CAP).
2016: The Northeast Region Climate Center (NRCC) declared the northeast region to be in a drought during the spring of 2016. Cornell began following intensive water conservation measures such as reducing water used for irrigation across campus, installing low-flow shower heads in dorms, and switching to using disposable dishware in dining halls achieving a goal of reducing campus water use by 20% over the duration of the drought. In an effort to engage the Cornell community, water reduction was incorporated into campus-wide sustainable behavior change campaigns including the annual Energy Smackdown competition, which included water conservation in addition to energy conservation for the Fall 2016 competition. Cornell developed an open-source data tool to share daily water use and allow for comparisons to historic baselines for 160 buildings on campus. This tool can be used alongside existing metering within Cornell’s Building Dashboard, allowing community members to explore how personal behaviors and operational choices impact resource use at the energy-water nexus. Cornell continues to follow some of the water conservation measures enacted during the drought in order to strive towards long-term resiliency and sustainability.
April 2016: Cornell’s second solar farm became operational in April of 2016. The energy generated at the Sutton Road solar farm will offset nearly 40% of the annual energy demand of the NYS Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva.
Fall 2016: A student liaison position was created in order to increase communication and collaboration between the CSO and the Cornell Environmental Collaborative (ECO). This student splits their time between serving on ECO’s elected board and having office hours within the CSO. A Sustainability tag was also officially added to the student clubs inventory list to help students find related clubs.
October 2016: Senior Leadership Climate Action Group (SLCAG) releases a report focusing on solutions to reducing campus energy demands and evaluating low carbon energy supply potential options for Cornell titled “Options for Achieving a Carbon Neutral Campus by 2035”. This report was the first to recommend a framework for quadruple bottom line decision-making, an innovative form of analysis that evaluates projects affecting four categories: purpose, prosperity, people, and the planet, as opposed to the traditional analysis framework of strictly evaluating financial costs.
November 2016: During the fall semester, the student club Cornell Thrift opened the first Ezra’s Exchange at the Willard Straight Browsing Library. Following a “free to give, free to take” basis, Ezra’s Exchange was envisioned to provide a venue for the exchange of second-hand items in order to address multiple facets of waste such as providing a tangible option for waste diversion and by challenging individuals’ treatment of material goods.
December 2016: Cornell opens its third, fourth, and fifth solar farms at the CU Ruminant Center in Harford, NY and the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station at Musgrave Research Farm in Ledyard, NY. The solar farm in Hartford features 20 acres of 9,333 photovoltaic panels that annually will produce 3.2 million kilowatt hours and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 610 metric tons. The combined solar farms at the Musgrave Research Farm in Ledyard house 9,044 photovoltaic panels each, and will produce about 6.5 million kilowatt hours annually, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 1,220 metric tons. With the addition of these three solar farms, Cornell produces 7% of its campus electricity needs through solar power.
April 2017: Cornell Transportation Services worked with students to relaunch the Big Red Bikes bike-sharing program on campus.
May 2017: Following the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, Cornell President Pollack signed onto a statement made by presidents of 11 other major U.S. research universities known as the “Ivy-Plus” group committing to making progress on climate change as institutions of higher education.
2017: Cornell receives the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)’s  Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) gold rating for the 6th year in a row.