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New Sustainability Plan Pushes AU Forward for Next Five Years

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Roper Pocket Park

When AU became the first carbon neutral university two years ahead of schedule in 2018, the Office of Sustainability staff began their quest for what’s next.   

Now, AU has announced these next steps in the university’s sustainability work, a new five-year plan that reflects AU’s Challenge Accepted brand campaign. This third campus action plan follows the 2010 Climate Plan and the 2014 Sustainability Plan

“American University is proud of our history of sustainability which includes becoming the first research university in the nation to reach carbon neutrality,” said AU president Sylvia Burwell. “Our work to reduce our environmental footprint continues with our new sustainability plan—an exciting and ambitious roadmap for AU as we continue to deepen our commitment to creating a healthier planet. We know that our entire community plays a role in our success, and we look forward to seeing results from our new sustainability efforts across campus.” 

The new plan has three sections—engagement, environment, administration—and an ambitious 45 new goals written by the Sustainability Advisory Committee and the Office of Sustainability. The team developed plans over the past three years through listening to the AU community and by aligning their efforts with the climate work being done by DC and the United Nations. The goals dovetail with the district’s progressive Sustainable DC plan, which provides a framework for new construction, energy, and water usage. 

“It’s really exciting that we’re in uncharted territory because so few universities have hit this point of carbon neutrality,” said Megan Litke, director of sustainability programs. Office of Sustainability. “So now we’ve figured out where to go next, and we’re ready to bring the community into it. I think that’s the expansion of the conversation beyond carbon emissions and into the broader sustainability problems and how they impact our communities.” 

In the engagement section, the plan includes goals such as adding more courses related to sustainability, wellness goals, making outdoor spaces more accessible, and connecting sustainability work with environmental justice. The section also includes campus and community engagement and outreach, boosting sustainability literacy and including the community in partnerships and education on sustainability. 

The university’s plan also details goals related to operating and constructing green buildings in the environment section. The plan pushes towards changes that would impact the look of campus. 

The campus tree canopy will be expanded and diversified, and the university will expand edible plants and gardens. The plan aims to achieve zero waste by 2030 by eliminating single-use plastics, increasing composting and recycling, and decreasing overall waste. The university will also support sustainable goods vendors and reduce paper usage and paper waste on campus. 

Students will notice a difference in dining options, with a goal that expands vegan dining options and increases sustainably or ethically produced food. 

“Many of the goals in the plan that will impact students came from student comments, so it came from areas where students saw we could improve,” Litke said. 

Any new construction prioritizes energy efficiency and prepares for future climate disruptions including temperature increases and heavy rain. 

The campus will increase the number of solar panels and include solar energy in any new construction. The Office of Sustainability will conduct a campus review using LEED tools to monitor efficiency, water, waste, and air quality. 

Litke said the plan’s goals go beyond the next five years, but the everchanging research in sustainability and technology requires flexibility in planning. 

“Three years from now, we may have the chance to take advantage of a technology that doesn’t exist right now,” Litke said. “We really wanted to create a plan that could be adaptable to changes. Within the next five years, it will be time to reevaluate where we are in the district and globally. But the work will continue on.”