NYU remains invested in fossil fuels as the university hosts its first State of Sustainability

The university touted its achievements, goals and new programs aiming to promote sustainability, but ignored its ties to fossil fuels.

NYU+held+its+first+annual+State+of+Sustainability+address+last+Thursday%2C+April+22.+Students+are+not+convinced%2C+especially+considering+past+efforts+by+NYU+Divest+to+get+the+university+to+cut+ties+with+corporations+related+to+fossil+fuels+and+the+prison-industrial+complex.+%28Photo+by+Echo+Chen+and+Tony+Wu.+Staff+Illustration+by+Alex+Tran%29

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NYU held its first annual State of Sustainability address last Thursday, April 22. Students are not convinced, especially considering past efforts by NYU Divest to get the university to cut ties with corporations related to fossil fuels and the prison-industrial complex. (Photo by Echo Chen and Tony Wu. Staff Illustration by Alex Tran)

By Saurabh Kumar, Staff Writer

NYU held its first annual State of Sustainability address last Thursday, April 22. The webinar event featured speakers from the Office of Sustainability and other university departments, as well as NYU President Andrew Hamilton and Provost Katherine Fleming.

The address described NYU’s recent achievements regarding sustainability and its goals for the future, as well as new programs and opportunities being made available to all members of the university community. 

“Sustainability isn’t something that just happens because we have an office with that name,”  Cecil Scheib, NYU’s chief sustainability officer, said. “At NYU, we’re committed to becoming one of the greenest urban campuses and advancing academic excellence through sustainability research, teaching and operations.”

In 2018, NYU committed to achieving LEED certification — the globally recognized sustainability certification for buildings — for all significant construction projects. Nicholas Liu-Sontag, Manager at the Office of Sustainability, said more than two million square feet of building space is certified or undergoing certification. The goal is to meet new sustainability standards for carbon emissions and water use for construction projects and facilities.

In 2020, NYU earned a STARS Gold Rating for Sustainability Achievements. The self-reported rating places the university in the top 30 percent of 323 certified institutions. Meanwhile, the Office of Sustainability worked with the Office of Global Inclusion to create an Environmental Justice Incubator.

“Sustainability is intrinsically linked to social, racial, and environmental justice,” Jauna Vitale, the assistant director at the Office of Sustainability, said. “[The incubator] provides a space for faculty and administrators to convene and have candid discussions around the intersection of these issues.”

Hamilton said NYU has a responsibility to lead by making sustainability its top priority. Accordingly, the university will launch a Green Workplace Certification to track sustainability progress by individual offices and departments.

“Sustainability is good for NYU,” Hamilton said. “It leads to healthier, more productive study and work environments for the entire community.”

Some students, however, such as Tisch first-year Rose Knopper, a member of NYU Divest, are not so impressed by the university’s efforts. 

“I have heard this information before about NYU saying they will do this and that for sustainability,” Knopper wrote to WSN in an email. “The truth of the matter is, NYU’s board of trustees includes oil and coal executives, leading to NYU keeping over a hundred million dollars invested in these industries.”

Laurence D. Fink, the founder, chairman and CEO of the investment management firm BlackRock, sits on the NYU Board of Trustees. BlackRock holds $85 billion in investments in coal companies, as the Guardian previously reported. BlackRock is also the second-largest shareholder in oil and gas companies ExxonMobil and Phillips 66 and the third-largest shareholder in oil and gas company Chevron.

At the sustainability address, Hamilton discussed NYU’s Climate Action Plan, the centerpiece of the university’s strategy to combat climate change. Having reached its previous 10-year commitment to a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions five years early, NYU now aims to achieve a 50 percent reduction by 2025. According to Hamilton, the university made progress on this goal this past year despite the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Additionally, according to the Office of Sustainability’s website, NYU is on track to become carbon-neutral by 2040. Hamilton said the goal to achieve a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions includes a new commitment to a 25 percent reduction in food-related gas emissions at NYU’s New York, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai campuses by 2030. 

According to Provost Fleming, university building operations were able to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 6,400 metric tons over the past year. She said schools have been asked to carefully consider their occupancy schedules for the upcoming fiscal year to economize heating and cooling in buildings. In light of this, Provost Fleming announced the university has launched an All-University Climate Change Initiative to strengthen climate and sustainability research and studies. The university has also developed a Green Events Standard for when in-person events resume.

“Going remote last Spring made clear just how much food, energy, plastic goods and transportation we’ve been wasting pre-pandemic,” Fleming said. “One of our greatest opportunities for improvement is in-person events. We realize that they’re one of our biggest sources of food waste, with the Kimmel Center alone holding 70,000 meetings, 7,000 of which were catered.”

While Knopper recognizes that NYU has implemented many green programs, she argues the efforts do not go far enough, citing past efforts by NYU Divest to get the university to cut ties with corporations related to fossil fuels and the prison-industrial complex.

“When a group of students tried to get NYU to divest from fossil fuels in 2018, NYU refused their demands,” Knopper told WSN. “Until NYU takes their money out of these problematic industries, the institution will never be able to champion itself as ‘sustainable,’ no matter how many green programs they introduce.”

“NYU is a dream school for so many kids and has such a big influence and reach,” she continued. “By divesting from fossil fuels and doing more to become truly sustainable, NYU has the potential to be an example for other higher institutions and create meaningful change towards the global climate crisis.”

Email Saurabh Kumar at [email protected]