Green groups must come together to see real results

Sustainability at St. Thomas is one of the administration’s strategic goals. But tracking efforts to “go green” is hard because many different groups are devoted to sustainability.

Many basic questions, such as what exact steps are needed to go carbon neutral, are lost in a bureaucratic tangle of organizations and initiatives.

Student-led clubs and organizations include the Green Team, the USG Sustainability Committee, Engineers for a Sustainable World, UST Solar Initiative and Students in Free Enterprise, which helps coordinate Recyclemania promotional events.

Among administrators, staff and faculty,  the UST Sustainability Committee reports to the Academic and Administrative Leadership Group. Many departments also coordinate their own sustainability efforts, from the geography department to University Relations, and of course the Environmental Studies Program plays a role in sustainable efforts.

Add in all the intercollegiate sustainability groups St. Thomas belongs to, and the result is a confusing mess of  groups, each with their own agendas and ideas of what’s best for St. Thomas.

It’s not surprising that for all the talk about sustainability on campus, there have been no earth-shattering changes. The closest the university has come to a significant, large-scale project is installing solar panels on Brady Hall’s roof, and that wasn’t even an administration-led effort. Students thought up that project.

The UST Sustainability Committee’s current plan is for St. Thomas to go carbon neutral by 2035. While a quarter of a century may seem a long way off, there’s a lot that needs to happen before then if St. Thomas hopes to achieve that goal, and it can’t be done if sustainability efforts remain disjointed.

Groups should get on the same page with sustainability

Different sustainability organizations have to band together. Right now, lots of organizations probably aren’t even aware of all the projects other groups are working on. And small projects are great, because every step helps, but if these organizations hope to make a difference, they’ll have to initiate major sustainability initiatives.

Many current projects address short-term goals. For example, going trayless in the cafeteria reduces energy costs and food waste, but what about the larger issues of where that food originally comes from, how much it costs to get that food to St. Thomas and where St. Thomas’ energy comes from?

Individual organizations and clubs can address aspects of sustainable issues, but to solve the larger problems, communication and cooperation between groups is necessary. The UST Sustainability Committee could take the lead by bringing all sustainability-related groups together. Then members from each group could apply their specific knowledge and skills to different problems on campus.

For example, if St. Thomas’ administration decided to buy more clean energy, members from different groups could help with specific aspects of the effort. Student-led groups could raise awareness among students and keep tabs on student opinion, departments could introduce discussions about clean energy into classes, and the administration could develop new rules regulating energy use on campus.

Much more could be accomplished in shorter amounts of time, and everyone involved in sustainability efforts would be on the same page for once.

Of course, for all this to happen, sustainability data needs to be more readily updated and available. In the “News and Events” section of the “Sustainability at UST” website, the most recent listed event is the Mississippi River cleanup that took place last October. And it’s hard for students to find information about which buildings at St. Thomas use the most energy, for example, so students don’t know where sustainability efforts are needed.

A new Climate Action Plan outlining St. Thomas’ plan to go carbon neutral by 2035 is currently being considered. Hopefully the CAP will explicitly state what St. Thomas needs to do to achieve carbon neutrality and provide concrete suggestions for what clubs and organizations should focus their efforts on. For the CAP to be useful, it also should provide comprehensive data about sustainability problem areas at St. Thomas.

Many people at St. Thomas have made admirable efforts to help the university go green. But different groups need to start coordinating their efforts so significant changes can occur because baby steps won’t lead to carbon neutrality by 2035.

Katie Broadwell can be reached at