The ACUPCC Network: Collaborative Action Creates Multiplier Effect

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By Georges Dyer, Vice President of Programs, Second Nature

(This article appears in the October, 2010 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

A core concept in the field of systems thinking is that in any system, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”   The relationships between the components of a system are vital to understanding the system as a whole, and it is impossible to really understand a system by only studying its components in isolation from one another and in isolation from other systems.

This concept is illustrated through the ACUPCC network.  This group of over 670 colleges and universities with top-level commitments to promote education and research on climate and sustainability, and ‘walk the talk’ by pursuing climate neutrality in their operations is poised to have a great impact on humanity’s quest to break our fossil fuel addiction and preserve a safe, livable future.To date, 535 institutions have submitted greenhouse gas inventories and 320 have submitted climate action plans – all publicly available so students, faculty and staff can learn about where their institutions stand and what strategies other institutions are trying.  As the results of preliminary analysis of this data become available, some trends are emerging.

For example, Associate’s Colleges face great challenges around emissions from commuting (which on average represent 50% of total their total emissions), whereas for Baccalaureate Colleges, the bulk of their emissions come from purchased electricity (45%).  When it comes to emissions reductions strategies, some popular approaches have emerged (e.g. green building and energy efficiency measures), while climate action plans have given less focus to other strategies (e.g. investment policies and local food initiatives).

These reports, and the summary data from them, are great resources for institutions to learn from one another and get sense of their own progress.  But perhaps more importantly, the cumulative impact of this collaborative initiative is accelerating progress in other sectors, serving as a role-model for other sectors, and helping to set precedent for national and international climate action.

Already Scotland has created the Universities and College Climate Commitment for Scotland, and the higher education sectors of Peru, Australia, and Taiwan are in various stages of exploring climate commitments that build on the ACUPCC.

Building on the architecture field’s “2030 Challenge” to have all buildings be carbon neutral by 2030, the American Institute of Architects has launched the 2030 Commitment (in many ways modeled after the ACUPCC) to engage architectural firms in creating a carbon neutral future.

Last year in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate negotiations, Sarah Brylinsky at Dickinson College articulated in this blog post how the ACUPCC could provide lessons for international agreements on climate change.  With the failure of the US Senate to pass climate legislation this year, it is more important than ever for viable, successful models at the local, state, and sector levels to set the precedent that will make national and international agreements possible.

The greenhouse gas emissions data and analysis results from the initial climate action plans demonstrate the scope and scale of the ACUPCC in terms of cumulative impacts on emissions reduction, climate literacy efforts, and research on new solutions.  But the influence of this network goes beyond the numbers, and the combined leadership of so many individuals and teams on so many campuses across the country is having a far greater impact than the sum of the parts.