USC’s emissions less than two-thirds of 2014 baseline, latest sustainability update reports

In stride with its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2025, USC’s greenhouse gas emissions last year marked a 31% drop compared to its baseline year of 2014, according to the University’s 2022 Sustainability Progress Report

The report, released Friday, details the University’s sustainability successes and ongoing challenges as part of the Carol Folt administration’s Assignment: Earth, a framework for “a greener campus and planet.” 

Despite a trend of emission reductions, last year’s scope one and two emissions — those owned or controlled by the University — grew about 30,000 from 2021, when pandemic-time building closures and remote operation led to a drop in energy use. 

The largest chunk of USC’s emissions in 2022 came from purchased electricity, most of which is sourced from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. More than 60% of L.A.’s energy was carbon-free in February 2022 thanks to investments in wind energy, as well as solar and battery energy storage. 

Though the University entered into a solar energy deal with LADWP last October, Chief Sustainability Officer Mick Dalrymple said he doesn’t anticipate any more separate energy agreements as long as LADWP continues to decarbonize its electricity sourcing. USC likely won’t beat UCLA’s goal of obtaining 100% clean electricity by 2025, he said, which is made possible by the UC system’s own utility and solar array. 

USC’s sustainability initiatives have also doubled down on waste, aiming for zero waste by 2028. Last year saw a 47% campus-wide waste diversion rate, which Dalrymple said is “not a bad number” considering the 2028 goal. The University installed 72 new multi-stream bins at the University Park and Health Sciences Campuses to sort waste. 

HSC had the lowest waste diversion rate among USC facilities and campuses at 22%, partly as a result of the large amount of medical waste from disposable supplies. New initiatives are underway, Dalrymple said, to increase waste diversion at HSC. 

“One of the initiatives that they’re undertaking is to replace the disposable gowns, which they said is an enormous amount of trash every day, and they’re replacing them with reusable gowns that will now go to a laundry service,” he said. “They’ve got about four or five initiatives that they are undertaking to dramatically bring up this number.”

The diversion rate at the Coliseum reached 86% for the 2021 football season, with 64.25 tons of waste that avoided landfills, and climbed to 92% for the 2022 football season. 

USC’s decision to sort its own waste led to a dramatic drop in University-wide waste diversion rates, from 54% in 2015 to 27% in 2019. Construction and demolition waste is no longer included in USC’s waste diversion calculations, part of the reason for the large drop. (Christina Chkarboul | Daily Trojan)

Dalrymple said the University has had a good deal of sustainability success since he was hired in July 2021 as USC’s first-ever CSO because it has targeted the “lowest hanging fruit” — that is, the easiest initiatives with the highest paybacks. 

“Everything from here on out, it gets much harder to do,” he said. “You tend to leave the hardest things for last because there isn’t a solution to them yet.”

A switch to LED lighting was a top priority — with 20 buildings upgraded in 2022 — because it brings a high return in energy efficiency, but changing out windows for the same purpose will be harder, Dalrymple said. Campus has many historic buildings with older windows that are more difficult and costly to change out, and the return for such upgrades tends to be lower. 

USC’s greatest challenge in energy, Dalrymple said, is decarbonizing infrastructure, including cooling and heating loops. While cooling is now mostly electric and will become more low-carbon as electricity is more renewably sourced, heating is done through gas boilers. 

“[Shifting to electric heating is] very hard and expensive because it means ripping up steam pipes and replacing it with hot water pipes and ripping out the gas boilers that have maybe got another 20 or 30 years of life in them and replacing them with electric ones that maybe don’t perform quite as good,” he said.

Another challenge is the balancing act between expanding and developing campus — building new teaching complexes, for instance — while becoming increasingly sustainable.

“It’s almost like having a moving target, but you know that it’s moving and that’s part of the … deal,” Dalrymple said. “What you have to do is make sure that any growth that you’re adding is adding the least amount of additional burden as possible.”

Potable water use per square foot of building space last year fell 15% below the 2014 level, falling short of the 25% reduction goal set out in the 2020 Sustainability Plan. Being per square foot and not cumulative, USC’s water metric accommodates growth. 

The University installed high-efficiency faucets during the height of the coronavirus pandemic and is currently developing a native planting master plan to convert some landscaping to low-water use plants. New native or climate adaptive landscaping resulted in estimated 40% average water use savings in 2022, but USC doesn’t have plans to completely do away with its grassy lawns. 

“I like to say that USC’s lawns are probably the hardest working lawns around. There is always some event going on on many, many of the lawns,” Dalrymple said. “We’re not going to get rid of all the grass. It serves as a really inexpensive facility for us. It’s much cheaper than building more buildings that have meeting space.”

Three or four LEED Platinum buildings are being designed and built to be completely electric, Dalrymple said, and the renovated School of Dramatic Arts building — housed in the former United University Church — will be a LEED Platinum project, too. 

Existing USC buildings will undergo retro-commissioning — inspections and fine-tuning of building operations and energy use — as required by the City of L.A. to ensure minimal energy waste. Dalrymple said this process is “really, really valuable and tends to have a nice return.”

According to data from the annual South Coast Air Quality Management District survey, nearly 50% of student workers, staff, faculty and postdocs drove alone to campus last year, yielding an average of 2.32 riders per vehicle — past the SCAQMD target of 1.5. More than 35% of those surveyed indicated that they still work remotely. 

The share of surveyed community members who walk, ride a bike or take the bus decreased more than twofold since 2014. The report did not present data on e-scooter use, which has increased in recent years, nor did it measure emissions resulting from University-associated air travel. 

“[Air travel] hasn’t been tracked separately before,” Dalymple said. “What I can say is that it’s less than 1% of our emissions … for the entire University, so it’s very, very small in the grand scheme of things.”

Dalrymple said he expects the 2023 Sustainability Report to reflect payoffs from the LADWP solar deal signed last year, which will reduce emissions by about 20%. 

“It’s not going to be for the entire year, but it’s gonna be for the majority of the year, so we should see a pretty big emissions drop next year, which is gonna be very exciting,” Dalrymple said.