Sustainability at UW-Madison

Weather-related issues that are likely linked to climate change are in the news almost daily. As many of you know, we’ve been working to make the UW-Madison campus more sustainable and resilient over the past decade. In this blog, I want to tell you about some of our current efforts to create a more sustainable campus.

Our approach to sustainability brings together our experts in facilities and operations with our faculty and staff working in academics and research. Dr. Missy Nergard directs the Office of Sustainability. She partners closely with Associate Professor Andrea Hicks, who is the director of sustainability education and research. (Assoc. Prof. Hicks is in an ideal position for this role, with a primary appointment in Civil and Environmental Engineering and affiliations with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Geological Engineering, and Freshwater and Marine Sciences Program.)

Over the last few years, and despite the disruption of the pandemic, the Office of Sustainability has launched major efforts in the areas of institutional sustainability, climate action and adaptation, and waste management. The Sustainability Advisory Council, the Zero Waste initiative, and our forthcoming Climate Action and Adaptation Plan have extensive stakeholder engagement have extensive involvement from faculty, staff and students. We’re building these efforts on both established best practices as well as evolving research.

By laying out a strategic plan for our sustainability efforts in the coming years, we’re creating a framework which will allow UW-Madison to be a leader in these issues.  We’re putting resources into this.  For instance, we’ve allocated $3.2 million for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects over the next fiscal year.

You can measure the effect of our ongoing sustainability efforts in many ways.  For instance, since 2007, UW–Madison has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 46% per building square foot and has cut potable water use by more than 37%, a remarkable metric considering that our campus continues to grow.

This spring, UW–Madison will submit its second Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS) report, which will let us know how we’re doing and push us toward continuous improvement. Following the last submission, we scored a silver rating, and it is my hope that we can achieve gold and then platinum in the coming years.

UW–Madison’s schools, colleges, centers, and institutes are producing our remarkable research on sustainability topics. We are also working with faculty and students to incorporate sustainability issues into coursework, using the sustainability course attribute, which allows instructors to tag courses that relate to sustainability so that students can more easily find them. Students from all over campus are interested in this topic; undergraduates enrolled in the Nelson Institute’s sustainability certificate come from 48 different majors.

Some of our most distinctive sustainability efforts bring together students, staff, faculty, and our campus and community spaces. The UW–Madison Green Fund, which supports student-initiated projects that improve campus sustainability, has in recent years put solar panels on the roof of Gordon Dining & Event Center and the UW Arboretum Visitor Center, replaced inefficient fixtures in University Housing bathrooms, retrofitted many, many lightbulbs across campus, and rolled out Electric Eats, a new electric food truck featuring locally-sourced food. For each of these projects, student ideas were the catalyst for collaboration, research, problem solving, and real change on campus.

A few fun facts:

We are positioning UW–Madison to take its rightful place as a leader in sustainability, not only in the conventional sense of reducing our environmental impacts and improving our operations, but also in leveraging our truly world-class faculty involved in climate research as well as channeling the passion and talents of our remarkable students. We also want to be sure that our efforts pay particular attention to “social sustainability,” including how we honor and engage members of our Native Nations, how we address environmental injustices, and how we examine issues of diversity and inclusion in the environmental movement. Our great strength is in our community–on campus and across Wisconsin, with both current students and alumni. This reach allows us to amplify our influence across the region as well as nationally and internationally.

I encourage you all to stay informed and connected on our sustainability efforts.  You can subscribe to our campus sustainability newsletter, follow @SustainUW on social media, apply to the Green Fund to fund a great project, join a sustainability-related student org, or suggest ways in which you would like to collaborate on sustainability efforts.

A shared commitment to, and involvement in, operating our campus in a more sustainable way can help us make even greater progress in the near future.