When I returned to Georgia Tech to pursue a Master of Sustainable Energy & Environmental Management I was determined to learn how to help save our planet by reversing climate change, protecting our vulnerable environmental and human resources, and accelerating the transition to a greener, more regenerative economy. While my classroom experiences revealed many of the tools and philosophies needed to help make that vision a reality, often it is only through application that the true complexities and challenges of your coursework are revealed. In order to round out my knowledge I knew I needed to gain boots on the ground sustainability experience. When I learned about the internship program through Georgia Tech’s Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS) I knew it was the perfect opportunity to put sustainability theory into practice. The SLS internship program focuses on connecting students with organizations throughout Georgia that are advancing social and environmental causes. It was through this program that I had the privilege of interning with Georgia Tech’s Office of Campus Sustainability (OCS) over the summer. The GT Office of Campus Sustainability works to integrate sustainability into Georgia Tech’s mission and operations by increasing sustainability awareness, setting institute-wide sustainability goals, and partnering with campus departments to inspire sustainable operations. The primary project I contributed to during my internship was the multi-phase effort to complete an institute-wide sustainability report using the STARS (Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System) framework. The STARS report is the standard among higher-education institutions for measuring performance on a broad range of sustainability criteria from energy usage to sustainability research. The results of this report are critical for helping Georgia Tech create internal benchmarks, set goals, and measure progress towards our sustainability mission. The results are also utilized externally to rank Georgia Tech against peer institutions and signal to the broader community our commitment to sustainability. During my internship this summer I gained invaluable insight into what it means to implement programs, drive engagement, and build strategy for sustainability within a large organization. While I learned many things about putting sustainability into action, I wanted to share three of my major takeaways:
Sustainability is multi-faceted and intersectional. Many people focus primarily on the environmental aspects of sustainability, i.e. water conservation, energy usage, greenhouse gas emissions, etc., but sustainability is much broader than just atmospheric carbon dioxide or renewable energy credits. While sustainability is inherently linked to the environment, the human and social aspects of sustainability are just as critical. Sustainability is equally about human influence on the biosphere and our influence on each other via equity, systems, and impact. Sustainability should prompt us to ask questions not only about our changing environment but also about who those changes are primarily impacting and whether they are equally enabled with the knowledge and power to act. The STARS framework helps emphasize this balance by measuring both environmental and social performance equally. For example, the STARS report not only measures how sustainably your students and employees commute to and from campus (car vs. bike), but also what programs you have in place to provide access and remove barriers for those wishing to commute more sustainably. It measures not only your operations but also what policies and systems you have implemented to enable growth and access in sustainability. Is your institution supporting the creation of coursework and research that enables sustainability knowledge? Are you sharing that research with the broader community so everyone has equal opportunity to be empowered? The broad reach of the dimensions measured in the STARS report helped re-emphasize to me that sustainability must be viewed through the lens of both environmental and social progress to be truly meaningful.
Sustainability is about building consensus. Sustainability is a global issue. Greenhouse gas emissions emitted in one part of the world contribute to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels which create climate change effects globally. Deforestation in one part of the world has rippling side effects on biodiversity, food security, and migration throughout our globally connected economies. While unilateral commitments and improvements from individual actors help, ultimately the problem cannot be solved without consensus action and strategy. The STARS report is a local example of needing to foster consensus-driven progress. The completion of the report requires the collection and analysis of large amounts of data from departments all across campus. In order to perform well on the report, in both accuracy and overall score, you need to demonstrate that sustainability is truly integrated across your campus. Often those who are responsible for leading sustainability within an organization are not the ones with the ability to make the changes required to achieve it. One of the most important roles of OCS is to bring together groups from across campus to create a community-driven vision for sustainability at Georgia Tech. Sustainability advocacy requires helping people understand why sustainability is important, how it can contribute to their lives and livelihoods, and inspiring them to move from broader goals to individual action.
In sustainability, what gets measured gets managed. Inevitably a large piece of sustainability work revolves around collecting data and creating reporting. While the completion of this work might not seem in itself revolutionary, its importance to moving sustainability forward cannot be understated. While many people inherently understand the value of sustainability, data is often the tool that drives action. Once people are able to see and visualize their behavior through data it becomes much easier to tackle problems and celebrate victories. It is difficult to achieve carbon neutrality without knowing what level of emissions you have created and thus need to reduce and offset. Without knowing how much food you purchase locally it is challenging to create a policy with the goal of increasing support of local food systems. However, measuring behavior and progress through data is about more than the absolute numbers you discover. The STARS report does not grade an institution on what volume of emissions they are creating, but rather on the thoroughness and accuracy of their reporting. The necessity of measuring is not to punish based on what is revealed, but rather to create a knowledge baseline so that all parties can work towards informed progress.
While these lessons are likely to apply to disciplines beyond sustainability, I found them to be instrumental in informing my sustainability work going forward. Equipped with this experience I can more confidently tackle our sustainability challenges. I will remember the importance of incorporating both people and the environment into our sustainability goals, creating a strategy and message that will bring everyone along on the journey, and equipping people with valuable data to drive informed changes. While the fundamentals I learned through my coursework will be critical to my success as a sustainability professional, I will always be thankful to Serve-Learn-Sustain and the Office of Campus Sustainability for providing this first opportunity to turn sustainability knowledge into action.
Commuting & Sustainability at Georgia Tech - Summer Internship Report