In-Depth: Sustainable Columbia Movement puts Principles into Practice

This year, the Office of Environmental Stewardship led the Columbia community in fostering a culture of sustainability on campus. With a goal-oriented plan, new commute options, reduced impact of operations, and an informed body of faculty, staff and students, the University is well on its way to reaching a higher standard of sustainability.

Columbia plans for a sustainable future

In April, Columbia University unveiled its first campus-wide sustainability plan, pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent in the next three years through a mix of energy conservation and efficiency measures.

The three-year plan, released a day before Earth Day, represents a practical fulfillment of the sustainability principles that university President Lee C. Bollinger announced at the beginning of the academic year. It sets clear targets for shrinking Columbia’s carbon footprint and reducing waste by improving efficiencies in campus operations, boosting composting, recycling and public transit use, and investing in energy-saving technology.

“At Columbia, we have long understood the profound threat climate change poses to the future of our planet and the role our community should play in confronting it,” Bollinger said. “Through our actions, policies, and behavior, we provide a model for the kind of global response we seek. Most significant in this effort is the basic research conducted by Columbia’s faculty and actively engaged student body working in schools and departments across the University.”

More than a year in the making, the plan was produced with extensive input from students, administrators and faculty scientists—many of them world leaders in the sustainability field. The plan’s overarching goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by zeroing in on energy use and conservation, transportation and waste management.

“Columbia has led pioneering research on the environment, and how our actions will affect future generations,” said Executive Vice President for University Facilities and Operations David Greenberg. “With this plan, Columbia is taking concrete steps to limit our own contribution to climate change. Setting measurable goals and actionable strategies will allow us to track our progress.”

Achievable, Measurable Sustainability Goals

Energy goals include reducing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings and purchased electricity by 35 percent over 2006 levels by 2020, and matching New York City’s emission-reduction target of 80 percent by 2050. The University will also measure, publicly report and verify its greenhouse gas emissions through The Climate Registry, a rigorous greenhouse gas accounting protocol.

Transportation goals include establishing baseline greenhouse gas emissions for all University-related and commuter travel, setting guidelines for buying fuel-efficient vehicles and creating programs to incentivize commuters to walk, bicycle and use public transit. Columbia will also explore ways to reduce and offset greenhouse gas emissions for air and other long-distance travel.

Waste management goals include developing baseline metrics for waste, expanding Columbia’s food-composting pilot project with NYC Department of Sanitation, improving recycling rates, including reuse of campus furniture, and calculating the University’s first waste diversion rate.

“As an institution engaged in education and research on environmental protection, it is important that we practice what we preach and apply what we learn,” said Michael Gerrard, an environmental law professor who heads Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “We still have quite a bit of work to do but this plan will show the way.”

Led by Greenberg and Gerrard, Columbia’s Senior Sustainability Advisory Committee developed the plan and will guide its implementation and oversight. Columbia’s Environmental Stewardship Office led the 16-month stakeholder engagement process and will handle the day-to-day implementation process.

Progress will be reported in real-time, as well as annually, to promote transparency and encourage feedback. A revised set of goals and strategies will be developed for 2020 and beyond. “This plan should be seen as a living document that will evolve over time,” said Jessica Prata, Assistant Vice President of Environmental Stewardship.

For more information about the Sustainability Plan, visit

Reducing Emissions on the Road

Columbia is dedicated to sustainable transportation, providing more bike commuting options each year. Launched in 2016 with three stations at the Morningside campus, Columbia’s Zagster bike share program has logged over 3,000 trips in 12 months. This summer, Columbia added a fourth station and six bikes at the Manhattanville campus, bringing the number of bikes in the program to 20.

Citi Bike is also expanding, with multiple new Morningside and Manhattanville locations.

Columbia staff, faculty, and students from New Jersey and New York City’s northwest suburbs can now commute together on a Columbia shuttle bus, taking excess cars off the road.

In October 2016, the University introduced a commuter pilot program offering direct shuttle bus service between Teaneck, NJ and the Manhattanville and Morningside Heights campuses. The program was a response to the 2016 Transportation Survey, in which the Columbia community was asked to share information about how their commutes could be improved.

This summer, Columbia expanded the pilot with a park-and-ride at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. A limited number of parking spaces at Lamont are now available to full-time Columbia employees on a first-come, first-served basis. The employees who purchase a parking pass can board the Lamont-Doherty shuttle for access to the Manhattanville and Morningside campuses.

The new and expanded shuttle bus service has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 21 metric tons per month and save commuters over $1,000 per year.

In September, Public Safety partnered with industry leader XL Hybrids to convert its 2016 Ford E350 Evening Shuttle Bus into a hybrid vehicle, making it the latest vehicle to be brought into the University's green fleet. In addition to this shuttle conversion, Public Safety continues to replace aging vehicles with more sustainable options, including an all-electric Chevrolet Bolt added in August that can travel 238 miles per charge and produces zero emissions.

"This conversion is an important aspect of our commitment to sustainability, along with our overall effort to transform our fleet to green vehicles," said James McShane, Vice President of Public Safety.

The newly installed hybrid electric powertrain on the Evening Shuttle is expected to deliver a 25% increase in miles per gallon, lowering the amount of fossil fuels needed as well as lowering carbon emissions.

For more information about sustainable transportation, visit

Fostering a Culture of Sustainability

This year, Columbia reaffirmed its commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate action in pledging “We Are Still In.” President Bollinger released the following statement in June:

"Given Columbia's singular involvement with issues of climate science, in every dimension and at every level, the University has assumed a special role in the efforts throughout the world to come to terms with the impact of climate change. We have long worked with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg on sustainability issues, we have committed ourselves to reducing the University's own carbon footprint and divested our endowment from thermal coal producers. We are therefore compelled to join in supporting ongoing efforts under the Paris accord to hold warming to under 2°C and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy that will benefit our collective future."

For the full statement, visit

With the creation of the Sustainable Columbia brand, a network of ambassadors –  the Sustainable Leaders Network (SLN) – was formed to promote the plan’s greenhouse gas and waste-cutting measures. The SLN comprises a faculty member, a student, and a staff member from each school, as appointed by the dean.

The Sustainable Columbia brand will unify Columbia’s many sustainability-focused programs, and the SLN will help to engage students, staff, and faculty across all Columbia schools.

“The [sustainability] plan dedicates resources to reducing Columbia’s environmental footprint,” said Columbia College undergraduate Sophia De Bois Hill, who contributed to the plan and is studying sustainable development. “As a student, it’s important to me that Columbia is putting its values into practice.”

The new Sustainable Columbia website showcases the Sustainability Plan, as well as initiatives, information, and ways to get involved in the sustainability movement on campus. The site is responsive, so you can sort through programs by topic, get news updates, and browse a list of events related to sustainability on any device.