Continuing its commitment to making the University greener, Yale hosted a three-day sustainability conference from Thursday to Saturday.
The two-part conference was meant to continue the discussion of sustainability both locally and globally, organizers said. The first two days were dedicated to the third annual Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium, while the third was reserved for an International Symposium on Sustainability in Higher Education. Julie Newman, director of Yale’s Office of Sustainability, said the conferences drew 185 representatives from over 50 universities and nine countries.
Newman, a member of the steering committee of NECSC and one of the program’s organizers, said she was pleased that the conference was well attended and felt that the participating institutions were able to both talk about the issues — including waste reduction strategies and reducing green house gas emissions — and learn from one another.
“[The main goal was] to provide a network for sustainability officials in higher education to share ideas and to expedite solutions in our campuses to sustainability challenges,” she said. “[It also aimed] to stay current with what’s happening in each of our campuses. It’s one thing to hear about it, another to meet with them.”
Yale decided to host the international symposium to make students aware of the issue of sustainable development as it applies to higher education globally, Newman said. Given Yale’s global recognition and a growing interest in the issue, she said, she thought the University was an excellent forum for facilitating international discussion on the topic.
The keynote address of the symposium, delivered by Daniel Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, focused on the Environmental Performance Index, which seeks to gauge how well different countries are protecting the environment and ensuring sustainability. Different criteria — including child mortality rate and nitrogen loading — are combined to produce a single score by which countries around the world are ranked. In the 2006 rankings, New Zealand ranked first, while United States ranked 28th.
Despite criticism that rankings oversimplify the complex factors contributing to sustainability, Esty said, rankings are important because they are more accessible to the international public. These scores help struggling countries identify models to emulate and fuel competition among countries seeking to improve their low rankings, he said.
“It is the way for people to grip it,” Esty said. “In fact, a lot of those data have been available before, but nobody pays attention.”
The address was followed by the roundtable discussion on the topic of “The Role of International Alliances to Advance Sustainability Objectives on University Campuses,” a public forum and a working session to develop a proposal for collaboration.
While Esty’s comments were well received by some, others said they remained concerned about what they called the pitfalls of rankings.
Thomas Kelly, director of the Office of Sustainability at the University of New Hampshire, said he felt rankings could be an inaccurate representation of countries’ performances.
“I think any kind of index can potentially distort the complexity that contributes to the ecosystem, health, and sustainability,” he said. “I think the desire to create an index notwithstanding [that complexity] can create real problems.”
Participants at the conference said they felt the consortium was well organized and exposed them to different ideas.
Cristin Rich, a consultant to the environmental initiative at the Hotchkiss School, said she felt the size of the conference reflected the growing support for sustainability.
Although most of the institutions in attendance were colleges and universities, the conference was open to secondary schools as well.
“It was very useful for me to attend because you hear about what other schools are doing, what the trend is,” Rich said. “You get a lot of support from the fact that it is a broad concern.”
But some attendees said they felt that scheduling more events would have improved the conference.
Edward Denton, vice chairman of facility services at the University of California at Berkeley, said he felt more time could have been spent on workshops.
“I actually think they could have crammed more in a day,” he said. “Extending a little bit, we could have got more done.”
The first two days of the seminar focused on sustainability in New England, included a keynote address by School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Dean Gus Speth and four concurrent workshops on the topic of sustainability in school campuses.