Looking Toward Cal Poly’s Climate Future

By Kai Parel-Sewell

Stephanie Cain presents PolyCAP 2.0 at the 2022 State of Sustainability Event at Cal Poly. Pc: Marina Varano

City and Regional Planning Professor Adrienne Greve and a team of three CRP Master students recently completed a brand-new climate action plan (CAP) for Cal Poly’s campus.

Greve defined climate action planning as “a strategic plan or an implementation tool. Kind of like how zoning code implements land use, a climate plan is the way you're going to implement your climate goals – the aim being greenhouse gas reduction and adaptation to unavoidable climate impacts.”

In 2016, Greve worked with a fourth-year undergrad studio to put together Cal Poly’s first climate action plan, known as PolyCAP. This was Cal Poly’s first attempt to consolidate its sustainability efforts into a comprehensive plan.

A lot has been accomplished in the past years. Greve cited notable steps Cal Poly has taken towards sustainability, such as the Health Center’s community garden, water bottle filling stations, compostable takeaway packaging for dining and extensive solar energy infrastructure.

On the academic side, Greve has witnessed a shift in focus, too. “There’s more faculty research classes and things on climate change than there were six years ago. The level of awareness and level of engagement are much higher,” she said.

However, in the past seven years, the landscapes surrounding climate change action have changed quite drastically. Climate disasters have grown in frequency and severity. At the same time, technology that can help address the issues driving climate change has developed rapidly.

Cal Poly is currently working to grow to accommodate increasing demand – physically with new buildings and in population with a plan towards year-round operation. All these factors have prompted an update of Cal Poly’s strategy for managing its carbon emissions, energy consumption and climate impact.

To create PolyCAP 2.0, Greve assembled a “graduate student SWAT team.” One of the benefits of the CRP Master program is that “planning as a field is interdisciplinary” and their grad students come from a wide variety of undergrad programs, such as “anthropology, political science, engineering, natural resource management, biology ... every discipline under the sun,” Greve explained.

This gave her confidence that “[she] could find humans in [her] own discipline that do other things” alongside planning. She assembled her grad student SWAT team; Stephanie Cain, Franklin Pandoy, and Marina Varano.

Cain was primarily responsible for agriculture, sequestration, procurement and waste; Pandoy looked at all things related to transportation; Varano helped with data and policy analysis, greenhouse gas inventory, community outreach, and stakeholder collaboration.

One of the things these students had in common is that, in the CRP Master program, “they all [were] trained on ... outreach,” Greve explained. “So, we did outreach; we spent a lot of time talking to all the facilities staff, such as TDAP, facilities management, the campus planner, and the head of housing. We went and talked to all the humans that manage aspects of what makes campus work.”

On the other hand, Greve and her team also spent time talking to the academic side – faculty, staff and students – through focus groups and surveys. Through their outreach and research, Varano noted that “there is an amazing interdisciplinary network of passionate changemakers already advancing sustainability, climate resilience, and environmental justice at Cal Poly. Students, staff, and faculty are making huge strides to make Cal Poly a more sustainable and resilient campus.”

The PolyCAP 2.0 team gets student feedback outside of Campus Market. Pc: Marina Varano

One of the biggest issues they identified through their research and outreach is transportation. According to Greve, “transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gasses … just under 50% … it's the hardest nut to crack.” Greve continued, “The other challenge [with transportation] for the city and for Cal Poly is that ... the highest property values [and rents] in the county are in SLO.”

Pandoy explains that this means that, “people are moving further and further away from Cal Poly,” increasing commutes to campus by car and, subsequently, carbon emissions. “Along with recommendations on housing we also made recommendations on the transportation infrastructure to increase bikeability and walkability,” Pandoy continued.

Greve and her team hope that the new PolyCAP will help address these issues and more. “We did the math in the first plan to show that building on-campus housing for students or faculty is a greenhouse gas winner – no matter how much water or electricity those residents use. It will never outstrip the emissions of their commute.”

With the large amounts of agricultural land in San Luis Obispo, the team sees a lot of potential in these lands for Cal Poly to address its water usage and carbon emissions. Cain identifies the work of Aaron Lazanoff, Cal Poly’s Beef Operations Manager, in regenerative ranching “to track, measure, and expand on the carbon sequestration that already happens on Cal Poly rangelands.”

“[Cal Poly has 10,000 acres of agricultural land]. We should be sequestering carbon in the ground. That, to me, is really exciting,” Greve explained.

Greve continued, describing an on-campus sewage treatment plan that will provide “treated wastewater they can use for all of the agricultural water uses. And then all the agricultural water can be used for increasing campus population because we're slated to get 3,000 to 4,000 [more] students and more on-campus housing. That's a lot of water."

Waste is another major issue that faces many sides of campus. “The main goals in procurement and waste were to increase waste diversion on campus through improved recycling and composting; and increase both sustainably produced and plant-based meal options for students,” Cain said. “This included decreasing single-use plastics where possible, supporting Cal Poly's existing Composting Operations to accept post-consumer food waste (i.e. all that food students don't eat that we throw away), and increasing options to thrift, reuse, and repair things on campus.”

Cal Poly has many opportunities to address its carbon impact, spanning many disciplines across students, faculty, facilities and administration. “Climate action fundamentally requires collaboration, and with all these groups and individuals working on sustainable solutions for our university, the majority of student's don't even know about them,” Cain said. “By bringing these groups into the mainstream, by increasing student awareness of these efforts, by institutionally embedding sustainability into all education and campus operations, we also provide the opportunity to involve [more] students in creating a more sustainable and equitable campus.”

In reflection, Varano concluded, “what I learned is that students, staff, and faculty are ready and capable to advance climate action at Cal Poly, like they have been doing for years – they simply need the continued support and funding from Cal Poly's leadership to be bold, innovative, and aggressive in their efforts. Formally adopting a new Climate Action Plan is a great place to start.”

You can read the original PolyCAP here and expect the publication of PolyCAP 2.0 in the near future.

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