What will the pandemic teach us about sustainability?


How has the coronavirus pandemic affected Pitt’s mission for sustainability?

“We don’t know the full answer to that yet,” said Aurora Sharrard, who led Pitt Earth Day Coffee & Conversation online for last week’s 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Sharrard, the University’s director of sustainability, noted that the closure of Pitt’s campuses led to an immediate dip in the use of resources: “When we shut campus down, that drove down energy use and water use and things like that.” However, she explained, “sustainability is the balance of equity, environment and economics,” and in the end the pandemic disturbs our ability to move forward in all of these areas: “When we are threatened, it is very hard to do those three things.

“Populations that are normally more at risk are even more at risk due to COVID-19,” she added. And the country is concentrating on re-opening the economy rather than making changes to improve the economic situation for everyone.

As for any gains in sustainable practices forced on us during COVID-19, Sharrard said, “most analysts say that this is a blip.” The real question remains: “How are we going to learn from this?” When we ramp our resources back up, will we have learned any new efficiencies?

For one, she said, sudden adjustments in our working conditions at Pitt — mainly, that most staff are not physically on campus — are now being discussed as permanent moves toward more remote work, which may reduce the pollution from our daily commutes in the long term.

But as we come back to campus, how can we do it most efficiently, Sharrard was asked by a Pitt Earth Day participant.

“It’s almost harder to come back than it is to go,” she answered. “What did COVID-19 change? You can say, ‘I’m not going to buy as much. I’m going to try to work at home or travel globally less.’ But once you get back in your comfort zone,” those resolutions may go by the wayside.

The Earth Day devotees at Pitt’s event also asked how they could get new people to care more about sustainability.

“It helps for you to be passionate about what you want,” then to figure out what issues resonate with your friends or colleagues, Sharrard said.

Samantha Ford, sustainability projects coordinator in the Office of Sustainability, noted that she once worked as a wildlife biologist and park ranger in a beach area, where she had to convince local fishers to respect sea turtle habitats on the shore. Talking about “climate change” made those of a certain mindset balk at taking an interest in conservation, she said. They hated having to worry about the turtles as they pursued their own interests — until she lit upon sentiments that hit home.

“You like fishing, right?” she told them. “You want to do this with your grandchildren later?” Sea turtles, she explained, are one of the few creatures that eat jellyfish, which protects the fish for future generations of anglers.

Brandon Brewster, a Pitt undergraduate and a sustainability intern in Facilities Management, questioned how Pitt plans to meet its 20-year sustainability goals, formulated in 2017 with a 2037 deadline, even as a new greenhouse gas inventory gets underway on campus this year. Did Pitt have plans to reduce air travel and study abroad — since air travel is a big producer of greenhouse emissions — once campus returns to normal? And will Pitt consider divesting from fossil fuels?

“We don’t consider our investments in fossil fuel industries part of the emissions we produce” when calculating Pitt’s greenhouse gas impact, he noted. “When we go forward can we address our real footprint?”

Recommendations from Pitt’s socially responsible investment committee have been passed from the chancellor to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, Sharrard said. But neither Pitt nor any other university considers their investment as part of their “greenhouse gas emissions balance sheet,” she said.

While the University has made a decision to buy renewable energy locally and will continue to make such decisions in the future, Pitt may, in the end, decide to disinvest only from certain categories of fuel extraction or energy generation, not from every category. Universities already divesting their endowment assets from energy “have been all over the place and they have not been” as consistent as one might expect, she added, choosing in some instances only to divest from certain fossil fuels, such as coal or tar sands oil.

As the Pitt Earth Day centerpiece, Sharrard pointed out that Pitt has been making moves to support the environmental movement since the celebration’s origins in 1970, from Chancellor Wesley Posvar being an early signatory to a university-centered environmental pledge to the creation of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation in 2003 and the more recent Year of Sustainability campus focus.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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