By Mary McInerney, Editor, USF Magazine and USF News, and Maura Sullivan Hill, USF News Contributor

Aerial View of the University of San Francisco (photo courtesy of the University of San Francisco)

Aerial View of the University of San Francisco (photo courtesy of the University of San Francisco)

Since 2017, the University of San Francisco (USF) has been making great strides in the care of our common home. From achieving carbon neutrality, to divestment of fossil fuels, to the purchase of California’s oldest certified organic farm, USF continues to live up to its mission to ‘Change the World from Here.’

Carbon Zero, Global Hero
USF met its goal of zero net carbon emissions in 2019, more than 30 years ahead of its 2050 target date, set in 2014. This was accomplished through a series of large and small steps, including reducing campus water use by 30 percent; switching to green cleaning supplies; installing micro turbines that produce heat and electricity right on campus; and purchasing mission-driven carbon offsets.

“As Pope Francis wrote in his challenge to the world, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, every one of us has a responsibility to participate in swift and united action to repair humanity’s relationship with the Earth,” said USF’s President, Rev. Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J. “For USF, this is both a matter of justice for the poor who even now suffer greatly from pollution and climate change, and a matter of justice for future generations who will suffer the consequences of the deleterious changes to our environment. The work USF has done as a community to reduce our carbon footprint aligns with the University’s mission and values, as well as our hopeful vision for our common future.”

After setting the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, USF made its next change: tackling the plastics problem.

Before 2016, USF’s main cafeteria used single-use disposable to-go containers and cutlery. While all of that plastic was recyclable, it still left a heavy carbon footprint. So USF switched to reusable plates, containers and cups, and stainless steel utensils — and saw profound changes. During the 2016-17 school year, the Market Café produced 25 percent less waste than the year before, and reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 22 percent. It also cut costs by 53 percent.

These changes illustrate just one of many ways that USF has worked to reduce its carbon footprint over the past decade. Boilers, heating systems, windows and lighting systems have been upgraded, and most of the lights on campus run on motion-controlled systems to reduce energy use. More than two-thirds of waste generated on campus is diverted from landfills through reuse, recycling and composting. USF has also reduced campus water use by 30 percent since 2014, through water conservation initiatives, new pool filtration and kitchen equipment, and high-efficiency water fixtures.

Because commuting, transportation and travel account for about half of USF’s carbon emissions — everything from an employee’s daily car commute to the carbon emissions generated from a professor’s air travel for fieldwork — the University encourages public transit for both students and employees, giving undergraduates MUNI passes and offering discounted passes to faculty and staff. Many campus vehicles are electric, and members of the University community are offered incentives to use bike-sharing programs to get to campus.

Food on campus is largely sourced through local farms. In 2017, the University acquired Star Route Farms, California’s oldest certified organic farm, as part of its efforts to mitigate climate change and work toward fair ecosystems for all.

“Sustainability is an important issue for the USF community of students, alumni, employees, faculty and neighbors. People want to align their values with the organizations they are connected to,” said Susan Hopp, an adjunct faculty member who teaches courses in sustainability leadership, and who helped create the USF sustainability plan in 2016. “Expressing the values of USF through committed actions is really integral to a healthy university.”

Another major component of achieving carbon neutrality is USF’s purchase of carbon offsets, which financially support projects that reduce emissions. After calculating the total metric tons of carbon that USF produces each year, the University purchases enough offsets to account for carbon emissions that cannot be eliminated by its other actions.

All of the carbon offsets that USF supports are mission-driven, with a focus on environmental justice. Examples might include reforestation projects, capturing methane gas in garbage dumps, or replacing dirty stoves with clean ones in Africa.

St. Ignatius Church (photo courtesy of the University of San Francisco)

St. Ignatius Church (photo courtesy of the University of San Francisco)

Putting Down Roots
If the University is to care for the earth, it helps to have some earth to care for — in a direct, hands-on way. USF’s purchase of Star Route Farms in 2017 is a living example of that.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis wrote: ‘Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.’

With 40 acres under cultivation and 60 acres of woods and ponds and wild hillside, Star Route Farms offers many educational opportunities, including student field trips, research projects, and group workshops and retreats for students, staff and faculty. For example: the environmental science department is measuring carbon storage in the soil to see if the farm is shrinking the University’s carbon footprint, and students have learned how to monitor water quality in the creek that flows through the farm.

USF’s hospitality management program has used Star Route Farms produce — everything from kale, tatsoi and Little Gem lettuce, to strawberries, blueberries, carrots and artichokes — in cooking classes and for some campus events.

Biology students have visited the farm to study how drought affects pollination, and the undergraduate California Ecology class has visited to study sustainable agriculture and ecosystem ecology — how living beings interact with their environment.

“Star Route Farms and the beauty of Bolinas is a perfect combination for us to get this central insight of Pope Francis and see how we are all part of nature. And, that all of creation is connected,” said Rev. Donal Godfrey, S.J., associate director of faculty and staff spirituality.

What Does the Future Hold?
Moving forward, USF continues to deepen the commitments to its mission and Laudato Si’ by making bold strides in sustainability and conservation. Last month, the USF Board of Trustees announced that it will divest fossil fuel holdings over the next twelve months, ceasing investments in any company or fund whose primary business is the exploration or extraction of fossil fuels, including all forms of coal, oil and natural gas. The University will continue to seek investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and other companies contributing to our transition to a more sustainable world.

Click here to view USF’s new video to celebrate Earth Day 2020.