The University of Pittsburgh announced today an ambitious goal of achieving a net-zero carbon footprint by its 250th anniversary in 2037.

Pitt released its carbon neutrality commitment at the board of trustees meeting, saying it intends to make “a tangible, measurable impact on the climate crisis” through efficient buildings and infrastructure, renewable energy sources and other measures.

The goal enhances Pitt’s sustainability plan outlined in 2018. The university has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 22% since 2008 and, as of last year, it purchases 22.5% of its electricity from renewable sources, says Aurora Sharrard, Pitt’s director of sustainability.

“It’s definitely achievable,” she says of carbon neutrality. “I think the important thing is, we’ve been on this journey for a long time and we’ve been making significant investments in reducing our carbon footprint already. The new goal really helps us get there faster and with renewed vigor, in a manner that’s also accountable and transparent.”

The plan engages students, faculty and staff, and Pitt’s partners regionally and nationally.

“The entire university community is excited about this commitment and involved in this decision,” Sharrard says. “This is an important issue for the university, for us to really embrace the obligation that we have to reduce climate change and leverage our operations and partnerships to do our part locally and globally.”

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher will sign the Second Nature Climate Leadership Statement and Carbon Commitment, making Pitt the ninth-largest among Association of American Universities institutions nationwide to pursue a net-zero carbon footprint. In 2008, Chatham University released its plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2025.

Pitt’s new initiatives include:

  • Building efficiency: Fourteen of the university’s 130 buildings are certified under U.S. Green Building Council standards. Pitt will pursue a 50% reduction in energy use by 2030 in its existing facilities and an 80% reduction for new construction.
  • Renewable energy: Pitt will purchase at least 50% of campus electricity from renewable sources by 2030, including 25 percent from a hydroelectric power plant in the Allegheny River that is expected to go online by 2023. Boston-based Rye Development expects to begin building the plant in 2021, just below the Highland Park Bridge at Lock and Dam No. 2.

“It’s less than five miles from campus,” giving students, faculty and staff an opportunity to witness firsthand the resource of Pittsburgh’s rivers, Sharrard says.

  • Infrastructure efficiency: Pitt began reducing carbon dioxide emissions in 2009, when it built a steam plant on Carrillo Street — one of the nation’s most efficient, says Sharrard. Pitt has five zero-emission electric vehicles and intends to add more to its fleet of 250 vehicles. (The public can track the university’s sustainability progress via its dashboard.)
  • Leadership and collaboration: Pitt’s commitment requires support from everyone on campus, officials say. The university offers an undergraduate certificate in sustainability and has the Chancellor’s Advisory Council on Sustainability, an Office of Sustainability with 27 affiliated student organizations, the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation and the new Center for Sustainable Business announced last fall.

Sustainability, in general, means “balancing equity, environment and economics so that current and future generations can thrive,” says Sharrard. Pitt’s plan covers stewardship, exploration and community and culture. Some of the goals are “very measurable and time-bound,” she says.

“We’re excited about our commitment because it builds on where we’ve been and strengthens an existing goal in the Sustainability Plan,” says Sharrard. “This commitment also helps us address climate change, which is the defining issue of our time, which puts us out in a leadership position both in Pittsburgh and nationally.”

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.