Temple community, climate activists weigh in on university’s sustainability progress

For Earth Day, The Temple News reviewed the recent Sustainability Annual Report and carbon neutrality efforts.

While the Office of Sustainability aims to invest in renewable energy, natural gas and electricity are currently Temple's main energy sources. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Amid an increasingly worsening climate crisis, rising global temperatures and multiple administration shakeups, Temple’s Office of Sustainability, faculty and student advocates are attempting to address sustainability on campus.

Temple Climate Action, an unofficial student organization, is advocating for Temple’s disinvestment from fossil fuels and investment transparency but feels the university falls short in its environmental sustainability.

“You know that saying that’s like, ‘Shoot for the moon and land among the stars,’ or whatever?”  said Ty Fowler, Climate Action’s events coordinator and a junior philosophy major. “I feel like we’re shooting for the satellite.”

The Office of Sustainability recently released its 2022-23 Sustainability Annual Report, highlighting progress on its goals from the 2019 Climate Action Plan

The office organized its goals into categories of academics and research, culture, design, energy and operations. While 25 goals have been met, 19 of the plan’s 44 are still in progress. The majority of in-progress goals are in the operations and energy sections of the report, while other sections have achieved the majority of their goals.

The 2019 plan was created based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, which warned greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030 and 100% by 2050 to avoid global destruction of ecosystems. Many universities developed climate action plans following the IPCC’s report.

The 2019 plan maps out its overarching goal: the road to carbon neutrality by 2050. Carbon neutrality lowers a carbon footprint while mitigating remaining emissions by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Temple is currently on track to meet that goal.

The university also received its first Gold Award in the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System in February, scoring 66.57 out of 100 points, from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education for the university’s innovations, campus engagement and research in sustainable practices. Temple scored higher than half of other participating universities, including Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania.

Despite the university’s achievements, students and faculty still criticize its prioritization of “surface-level” goals and lack of transparency regarding its investments in fossil fuels. The university does not disclose its financial investments in fossil fuels or related entities.

Within operations, goals related to food waste management and food sourcing in Temple’s dining facilities and the use of water and inorganic materials, like fertilizers or chemical pesticides, in landscape management are still in progress. Some goals in transportation, academics and research, energy, design and culture are also in progress.

As Main Campus is bustling with sustainability-related Earth Day events, here’s a breakdown of Temple’s climate action progress.

Temple’s Office of Sustainability, faculty and student advocates are attempting to address sustainability on campus. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS


Among the goals labeled as “in progress,” Temple’s dining services aimed to increase food sources that meet STARS definition of locally sourced and reach a 50% food waste diversion target by 2022. 

The Office hoped to have a minimum of 20% of procurement spending used on locally sourced food by 2020, but less than 2% was actually spent in 2022-23. 

Aramark, the university’s dining services provider, receives food for the university from a food distribution center, but they’re unable to track where most of the food comes from. The 2% spent on locally sourced food refers to items that are certainly within 250 miles of the university, said Rebecca Collins, the director of sustainability within the Office of Sustainability. 

“I’m in touch with Aramark’s sustainability team and their corporate to let them know that this is a really big deal,” Collins said. “We would like more transparency, they are aware; it’s one of their corporate goals as well.”

Aramark did not respond to The Temple News’ request for comment by the time of publication.

Although measuring food waste diversion is a target of the Office of Sustainability, they’re only able to get information through their partnership with Aramark.

Anything considered a retail space, like stores on Liacouras Walk or The Wall, is not required to report food waste to the Office, Collins said. 

“That’s why we’re really focusing on Aramark because that’s the information that we have and that’s what we have control over,” Collins said. “We look at [what] Aramark reports, all of the wasted food that’s associated or generated by production.” 

Aramark measures food waste from production, services and storage in their reports. They use biodigesters, or anaerobic digestion equipment, to break down and measure waste from services, which includes leftover food that can’t be served again, but the machines were broken during the last year and the company they leased the machines from went out of business. 

The waste from services wasn’t diverted in the 2022-23 academic year because of the machines, which made 50% waste diversion an unreachable target. 

The university’s 50% diversion goal is unclear because the goal isn’t established in context, leading to questions like, “50% of what?” Collins said.

Aramark and the Office of Sustainability are in the process of bringing biodigesters back to the Esposito Dining Center within the next month or so, Collins said. They will sit near dishwashing machines to collect food left on plates.

In the meantime, Aramark has connected with the Cherry Pantry to send what would be food waste from storage as donations to distribute instead.

The operations section of the report also looks at reducing the water required for landscape management by 25% by 2025 from the 2006 baseline. Although the goal’s focus is on water required for landscape management, the goal is based on the 2006 total amount of water use for the whole campus, which is an entirely different and much larger number than just landscape use, Collins said.

This kind of measurement “muddies the water,” but the grounds department now has metering for their irrigation systems for this exact reason, said Glenn Eck, the associate director of grounds. 

Last year was the department’s first full season of actual individual meters on individual irrigation systems. They’re now able to capture numbers specifically relating to landscaping usage.

The 2019 Climate Action Plan had various goals related to Temple’s grounds department. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

The Office also aims to reduce the use of inorganic fertilizers and chemical pesticides, fungicides and herbicides by 75% by 2025 from the 2010 baseline. They’re only at 33% with only a year left to complete the goal on deadline, but the delay is partially due to recent administration shakeups.

Temple has had five presidents since the baseline was created with three presidential changes occurring within the last four years.

“We’ve been through a lot of administrations here at Temple, and various administrations that have come through have various goals as far as the campus landscape,” Eck said. “We’ll have a new president coming in very soon and those things impact what they want to see on the campus landscape.” 

With a new administration comes different aesthetic decisions, like determining whether to use weed control or hand labor on lawns, like Temple’s green roof. The grounds team mitigates the usage of chemicals like pesticides through their strategic planning, but a path toward the reduction of herbicides isn’t as easy. 

“The reduction in the use of herbicides, as it stands right now for that to happen quickly, it would have to be enabled by either a larger workforce or a more relaxed attitude towards the aesthetics,” Eck said.

The grounds department has already reduced the amount of fertilizers by utilizing both synthetic and organic fertilizers and limiting their usage near dorms, Eck said. The team generally doesn’t fertilize trees, shrubs and plantings.

The university has also maintained progress toward its 2030 goal to fully implement the Verdant Temple Landscape Master Plan and has enacted almost all of the plan except for two major projects, said James Templeton, the assistant vice president and university architect. 

The two projects include the landscape improvements to Broad Street through Main Campus and the implementation of a new university quad, Templeton said. 

The master plan also includes implementing additional bike parking where it’s available, directly connecting to the Office’s goal of increasing the number of commuters who utilize a sustainable form of transportation to Main Campus to 75% by 2025. 

Temple Student Government is trying to increase sustainability among commuter students as they’re working on gaining access to SEPTA’s UPass Key Advantage Program, which aims to give students an affordable way to get to school, work or around Philadelphia and its surrounding counties.

The cost for the program is based on the number of eligible students multiplied by the unit cost defined in the agreement. Temple could also fully subsidize the cost of the program or assess a student fee.

The discounted cost would be $100 per student for four months or $150 per student for six months, said Lauren Jacob, the vice president of TSG. 

“The cost is obviously one of the biggest barriers that we’ve been encountering when talking to administrators about it, they’re worried about increasing cost for students, because Temple can’t pay for the whole program by themselves for everyone,” Jacob said. 

TSG is currently asking administrators if they can release a survey on TUPortal asking students if they are willing to pay an extra $150 on top of their tuition as a transportation fee, Jacob added.

The Office’s other three transportation-related goals — reduce fleet-based emissions from the 2006 baseline by 20% by 2030, reduce the number of single occupancy vehicles on campus by 10% by 2025 and increase the percentage of the university’s fleet that is alternatively fueled to 50% by 2030 — are set to be achieved in the next six years.

The Office of Sustainability and Temple Student Government are collaborating to address transportation-related sustainability goals on campus. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS


The Office has achieved eight of its 10 goals related to academics and research, but the two in progress show a lack of sustainability-focused or inclusive courses available to students.

They planned to increase the number of undergraduate and graduate sustainability courses by 10 from a 2016–2017 baseline by June 2022 and increase sustainability-inclusive courses by 20 courses from an October 2017 baseline by June 2022. 

Instead, the classes decreased by 60 and 36, respectively.

“One of the drivers for the overall reduction is that because there has been a decrease in students enrolled, there has also been a decrease in classes offered,” Collins said. “So while that number might be a little startling if you look at it holistically where it’s not just like a number but a percentage of classes offered, it may look a little different.”

Temple is grappling with low enrollment numbers and budget cuts, with its student population decreasing by 21.8% — a drop of nearly 10,000 students — in the four years following the COVID-19 pandemic.

There could also be discrepancies among sustainability course offerings depending on how often courses are offered, as some aren’t offered every academic year, Collins said.

The university exceeded its goal of increasing the number of departments with sustainability course offerings by 12 from an October 2017 baseline of 68 rather than two, the original goal. 

Temple also scored generally well in academics in the STARS report but learning outcomes are an area where the university falls short.

Only 8.78% of students graduate from programs requiring an understanding of the concept of sustainability, according to the STARS report. The number increased from 1.69% in the 2018 report.

“It’s only recently increased, it’s still less than 10%,” said Rob Kuper, an architecture and environmental design professor. “We need 100% or as close to 100% as you can get. So, that’s one of the things that we’re really pushing.”

Kuper is advocating for a general education requirement related to climate change and sustainability, he said. He recently presented in favor of the undergraduate education goal to the Faculty Senate Committee.

The university is continuing to implement sustainability-related education by introducing a one-year course for a master’s degree and a certificate in sustainability, with the first cohort of students starting this coming Fall semester, according to a university press release sent to The Temple News.

Enrolled students can take courses in one of five concentrations: biodiversity and conservation, urban sustainability, energy systems and natural resources, climate justice and geospatial technologies. 


While increasing the physical space of Main Campus by more than 36%, the university was able to reduce gross greenhouse gas emissions by 33% since 2006.

Temple emitted 157,154 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the 2023 fiscal year, following a relatively steady overall decrease to keep on track with the 45% reduction in emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050 goal. 

While Temple has made impressive progress in reducing its carbon emissions, some university community members would prefer a direct focus on total decarbonization, which would mean entirely cutting its carbon emissions without relying on offsets, instead of carbon neutrality, which doesn’t fully eliminate carbon emissions and offsets remaining emissions.

“[Carbon neutrality] pushes a lot of the emissions reductions off to the future instead of figuring out a way to do it now, and it helps to try and do it as fast as possible because climate change is a cumulative effect,” Kuper said. “So every tonne that we admit contributes to climate change, and it takes centuries for that stuff out there swirling around to come out of the atmosphere.”

A carbon-neutral approach can rely on carbon offsets — which is when institutions that produce pollution pay another entity to pollute less and can include common projects like paying for forestation, building renewable energy and buying carbon credits — but they don’t live up to their expectations,  Kuper said. 

“Trees do indeed sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but they do it so slowly, that it’s not even, and we humans have been deforesting the earth for 10,000 years since the advent of agriculture,” Kuper said. “So it’s just unrealistic to think that we can plant trees and offset 150,000 metric tons from Temple.” 

Some offset companies overestimate the impact they have, leading to questions about whether purchasing credits can actually make up for greenhouse gas emissions, NPR reported.

However, carbon offsets are the last resort for Temple’s carbon neutrality mission, Collins said.

The university is prioritizing efficiency — using equipment or technology that

requires less energy to perform the same function — and renewable energy to lessen its emissions. Temple has yet to invest in any offsets.

“Once we’ve maxed out our options, and really done everything we can from an efficiency and renewable energy standpoint, then we will consider investing in offsets,” Collins said.

Rebecca Collins, director of the Office of Sustainability, is working on the next Sustainability Action Plan with Caroline Burkholder, the Office’s senior sustainability manager. | JULIA LARMA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

A carbon-neutral by 2050 approach is the current standard for sustainable-focused institutions, as it was recommended by the IPCC. 

The university is also in the process of signing another power purchase agreement, however, its 2021 goal deadline was pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Signing a PPA is essentially getting emissions-free, or low-emissions power sources often through either a wind farm or solar field, said Cory Budischak, an electrical and computer engineering professor. 

“What that’s doing is basically saying, ‘Hey, this other company is gonna build this solar field, and they’re gonna build it outside of Temple property,’” Budischak said. “Temple is not going to own it. But what Temple is going to do is sign a contract that says, ‘Hey, I’m going to buy that power from you for the next 10, 20, 30 years,’ and that’s called a power purchase agreement.”

This process isn’t a form of energy efficiency, it’s just lowering the emissions of their electricity mix, Budischak added. 


While sustainability should take a holistic approach and the Office has introduced meaningful goals within that spirit, advocates like Fowler can’t help but think the goals can feel somewhat surface-level without the university’s divestment from fossil fuels.

There is no public information about the university’s investments in fossil fuels, but the most recent estimate shows Temple has about a 3% investment in “commingled funds,” wrote Ken Kaiser, senior vice president and chief operating officer, in an email to The Temple News.

“Temple purchases natural gas and electricity as the main sources of energy for running the campuses,” Kaiser wrote.  “We don’t make any direct investments in fossil fuels. There may be some commingled investments the details of which are not readily transparent.”

Temple’s proposed budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year accounted for a $2.5 million increase in spending on energy, specifically natural gas and electricity. 

“Based upon some literature I’ve read, it says, generally, institutions of higher education may have about 2% of their portfolio invested in fossil fuels, maybe higher, maybe lower, I don’t know,” Kuper said. “So we got to get rid of that and invest in something else, and publicly report that.”

Climate Action advocates for divestment and transparency in its petition, which has gained nearly 1,300 signatures.

“This issue of transparency I’ve been seeing come up, in all sorts of circles surrounding transportation, equity and talks about unionizing,” Fowler said.

Temple Climate Action had a table at Temple’s first Earth Day Sustainability Expo on Monday. | COURTESY / TEMPLE CLIMATE ACTION

The Office is encouraged to revisit its Climate Action Plan every five years, and they are currently working to develop a new plan with updated goals and information for 2024. 

The approach will be split into a 2024 Sustainability Action Plan, focusing on a holistic approach to sustainability, and an Emission Reduction Plan, similar to the 2010 Climate Action Plan highlighting the path to carbon neutrality. 

The Office debuted its working draft of the new Sustainability Action Plan at the Earth Day Sustainability Expo at the Science, Education and Research Center on Monday and is currently accepting feedback.

“While the structure has changed slightly, it will be similar to the 2019 Climate Action Plan in that it reaffirms our commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050 and it includes goals that support a holistic approach to climate action,” Collins said.

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