Measuring Sustainability

April 25th, 2013

Thank you for the article on Brown’s efforts to reduce its energy use and greenhouse gas emissions (“Applied Lessons,” Under the Elms, January/February). Global warming and climate change concerns clearly are being taken seriously, as they should.

It is important that the term “sustainability” be used carefully in this regard and not just as a casual synonym for “efficient” or “green.” Sustainability can be quantified in a manner that makes it much more meaningful and useful. The first step is to know the amount of greenhouse emissions or “carbon footprint,” but there also must be accountability for what is produced in return and how this relates to natural environmental boundaries or limits.

The single most fundamental element of sustainability is an economy that operates within the capacity of the environment to tolerate the resulting burden. Eco-Efficiency (EE), the ratio of actual productivity to sustainable productivity, is less than 10 percent for typical U.S. grid electric power, about 60 percent for production of various commodities, and about 40 percent for the U.S. and world economies overall.
Sustainability also involves important social considerations, especially when the “business” is education. These can be included using various types of economic adjustments. However, the bottom line is that EE based simply on market value provides the practical foundation for putting the carbon footprint in proper perspective and is the first and most basic calculation necessary when assessing sustainability. It would be useful for Brown to determine where it stands based on this measure.

David A. Dickinson ’78, ’84 PhD
Titusville, N.J.

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Related Issue
May/June 2013