A portrait of Martha Pollack

At Cornell, Sustainability Isn’t Just a Goal—It’s a Way of Life

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From conducting research to reducing the energy our campuses use, we’re leading the way to a greener future

By Martha E. Pollack

Earlier this year, Cornell was again recognized by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), the international group tracking environmental stewardship across more than 1,000 college campuses, with a platinum sustainability rating—the highest level possible.

We are the only Ivy to have earned this rating, and the first university in the world to have achieved it three years in a row.

This accomplishment is a reflection of the commitment to sustainability that characterizes Cornell, not only across our operations and facilities, but throughout our institution.

It is a commitment that has led us to set, and prioritize, an ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality on our Ithaca campus by 2035 through our Climate Action Plan—aiming not only to achieve a carbon-neutral energy system in our own community, but to do so in pathbreaking ways that add to the global sustainability toolkit.

And it is a commitment that has led us to support and marshal, in effective and far-reaching ways, the tremendous expertise of our faculty in tackling the immensely complex web of global sustainability challenges.

On our Ithaca campus, we are moving steadily toward our goal of a carbon-neutral energy system, thanks to a mix of highly efficient solar projects, green building construction, hydroelectric power, and Lake Source Cooling.

On our Ithaca campus, we are moving steadily toward our goal of a carbon-neutral energy system.

Our recently completed North Campus Residential Expansion (NCRE) is incredibly energy- and resource-efficient, with 12-inch-thick insulated walls, state-of-the-art LED lighting, high-reflectance roofing, and high-efficiency rooftop solar panels that together generate 1.1 megawatt hours of electricity annually.

And our Cornell Tech campus, in New York City, is home to both the world’s first high-rise passive house residential building (the House at Cornell Tech) and the first academic building (the Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center) designed to be net-zero energy efficient, with all-electric power, geothermal wells, a green roof with solar photovoltaic arrays, and smart building technology.

To heat our Ithaca campus through the chilly Central New York winters, we are exploring the potential of Earth Source Heat (ESH): a deep geothermal system that, if successful, will be a source of emissions-free energy. In its simplest terms, the system involves pumping water deep into hot underground rock, and then returning that water to the surface to heat, via a heat exchanger, a separate water supply with which to warm our campus.

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As part of our ESH feasibility study, we spent the summer drilling the two-mile-deep Cornell University Borehole Observatory (CUBO): a source of information on the temperature, permeability, and other key characteristics of the rock far below our Ithaca campus.

While the data are still preliminary, they are promising, and we are optimistic that we will be able to move forward—enabling us to not only meet our carbon-neutrality goals, but lead the way for similar renewable energy efforts elsewhere.

Sustainability research is being pursued across all of our colleges and campuses: work that is bringing us advanced decarbonized energy systems, cleaner animal agriculture, more sustainable and efficient solar cells and batteries, more equitable policies, and better methods of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and keeping microplastics out of oceans.

Key to uniting and accelerating all of that work is the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability: our hub for collaborative sustainability work across Cornell, powering connections across the University and beyond.

Key to uniting and accelerating all of that work is the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

And through collaborations like the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition, NextGen Cassava, and Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement, we are working to reduce malnutrition and food insecurity in ways that are equitable and sustainable.

The current decade is a critical one for the future of our society and our planet. To help turn scientific breakthroughs into practical solutions, we’ve launched the 2030 Project: A Cornell Climate Initiative—mobilizing the vast range of sustainability expertise at Cornell in the fight for a livable future.

With the backing of Cornell Atkinson, and alumni and donors around the world, the 2030 Project recently awarded its first grants: supporting work to reduce methane emissions in the dairy industry, minimize worker disruption in the transition to electric vehicles, recapture carbon dioxide, and more.

Virtually none of the sustainability challenges we face lie wholly in a single field or discipline. They span human and veterinary medicine, chemistry and computer science, development sociology and applied economics, geology and oceanography, architecture and agriculture, every field of engineering, and beyond.

Solving those problems will demand expertise not just within each field, but across them—as well as the drive for innovation, collaboration, and excellence that characterizes our ethos at Cornell.

Top: Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University

Published November 21, 2022


  1. Fred Keller

    Having spent 17 years (starting in 2002) teaching a sustainability course in the Johnson Graduate School of management, I couldn’t be more proud of the progress Cornell is making and the pioneering leadership it is displaying. Well done. Time to accelerate!

  2. ROBERT ALLAN AGNEW, Class of 1963

    Admirable initiatives. Very cool!

  3. Heather Bullock, Class of 1997

    Love that Cornell is leading the way towards sustainability! So proud to be a Cornellian! I haven’t been back in a while, and I look forward to visiting and seeing the changes.

    I started a garden program at our local elementary school in North Carolina that focuses on environmental sciences. The kids love learning about their impact and how we can take better care of our planet…while getting their hands dirty and enjoying the fruits of their labor. I’m hoping a few of these students are inspired and become future leaders and innovators in the fight for the environment and efforts towards sustainability…perhaps some future Cornellians as well!

  4. Robert Stephen Jones, Class of 1994

    Fantastic campus-wide collaboration on this work!

  5. Herbert Acquay

    Very informative and inspiring article on Cornell’s leadership on environmental sustainability. Well done!

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