"Payback" Dilemma Holds Back Campus Climate Initiatives


LEED gold certified Lory Student Center, Colorado State University (Photo: Michael Kinsley)

Rocky Mountain Institute is in the final stages of developing "Accelerating Campus Climate Initiatives," an on-line book that will describe the many barriers that campus leaders confront in their efforts to reduce the greenhouse gases that result from campus operations. More important, the book will describe solutions to those barriers, which we found in our research, which included visiting twelve campuses (We posted about this research earlier here).

One of our discoveries was that many campus sustainability directors are frustrated by what they regard as a double standard in campus budgeting: A climate-mitigation project, such as energy-efficient building design, is subject to strict payback requirements. That is, in a certain period of time, it must pay back capital costs with savings it achieves in operations costs. But other projects competing for budget money are considered with no reference to payback.In effect, because climate-mitigation projects are also financially advantageous, they are subject to strict payback standards, while other projects that do not payback are given a pass. In short, since climate-mitigation projects can pay back, they must pay back quickly.

People working to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in their own organizations may identify with one campus sustainability director who pointed to the wall in a well appointed meeting room and asked rhetorically, "What's the payback period for that beautiful wood paneling."

As a result of this perverse dilemma, many sustainability directors are now seeking an even playing field in the competition for the campus budget. They assert that climate-mitigation measures are another manifestation of quality. They suggest that a more rational policy would be, "Our buildings are our legacy, part of the definition of who we are. Beauty and efficiency are both aspects of our high standard of quality. We build neither ugly buildings, nor buildings that damage the climate."

What can be lower quality than a pretty building that hastens the climate crisis?

By: Rocky Mountain Institute, Michael Kinsley


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Tags: Buildings | Carbon Neutral | College Life | Global Warming Solutions

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