Nurit Katz, UCLA’s first Chief Sustainability Officer, sat down recently with Judy Walton, AASHE’s chief publications officer, to discuss Nurit’s work on campus and involvement in the AASHE 2012 conference. Nurit also serves on AASHE’s STARS Steering Committee and is an instructor for UCLA Extension’s Global Sustainability Certificate Program. While a graduate student, Nurit founded the UCLA Sustainable Resource Center, served as president of the Graduate Students Association, and assisted in developing an interdisciplinary graduate certificate program, Leaders in Sustainability. She holds an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management, a Masters in Public Policy from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and a BA in Environmental Education from Humboldt State University. Nurit was recently honored as one of 100 Inspirational Alumni for the 75th Anniversary of UCLA Anderson. She serves on the Executive Committee of the Luskin Center for Innovation and on the Board of Opportunity Green.
JW: I hear your UCLA Extension class, “Principles of Sustainability I,” was recently cited as one of the “10 Best Classes in L.A.” by L.A. Weekly magazine. Congratulations! Can you tell us a bit about the class?
NK: “Principles of Sustainability I” is the first core course in Extension’s Global Sustainability Certificate Program (which is also offered online through a partnership with Empowered). The Principles course is an introduction to the broad field of sustainability – from sustainable agriculture to corporate responsibility, design, and everything in between. It gives students the analytical frameworks and tools to help them tackle the global social and environmental challenges we face. As a survey course, it also helps students choose what they want to focus on in the field and exposes them to different topics and career options.
The students who take this course are incredibly diverse in occupation and level of experience. We’ve had architects, teachers, accountants, lawyers, aerospace engineers, even a script writer and a stuntwoman. We also have many international students – from Brazil, Taiwan, Japan, Germany, Belgium and all over the world. It’s an amazing opportunity to engage in a rich dialogue on critical topics. Students who have graduated from the program have gone on to positions as diverse as their backgrounds, from environmental policy analyst for a local city councilman, to solar project management, to starting companies like a sustainable food truck business.
JW: You once said your passion lies in transforming UCLA into a “living, learning lab.” Can you describe what this means to you, and how it frames your daily work?
NK: At UCLA and throughout the UC system, we’re working on integrating research, education, and operations, using the physical campus as a live, learning laboratory. One great example of this is our Action Research Team program. Coordinated by the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, this innovative program is part of a set of student-led undergraduate courses called the Education for Sustainable Living Program (ESLP). In the ESLP Action Research Team course, students in research teams work with faculty and staff stakeholders to tackle campus sustainability issues such as energy efficiency, transportation, waste stream management, sustainable food practices, and curriculum development.
Another great project that illustrates the learning lab concept is a recent pilot of a smart water filtration system to filter blowdown water from our cogeneration plant. The project enabled Professor Yoram Cohen and his grad students to test a new technology while demonstrating a way to save thousands of gallons of water per day. That project was presented at the AASHE conference in L.A. last week, and we’re currently seeking funding for a permanent installation. Over in our engineering buildings, Professor Rajit Gadh and his lab are doing exciting work with smart grid technology and EV charging stations, using campus buildings as experimental test sites. These types of projects are great examples of the potential of the physical campus and operations to be a learning laboratory for sustainability.
JW: What advice do you have for others hoping to develop successful sustainability programs?
NK: It might sound trite, but I believe successful sustainability programs are all about teamwork. We have a strong group of staff, students, and faculty working together through committees and taskforces. Sustainability is inherently multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral. It crosses every department of the university. Getting the right people at the table together and building those connections is half the battle. Although it tickled me when I learned that UCLA has a Committee on Committees, and I sometimes use that as an example of our enormous bureaucracy, committees are an effective and important tool for campus sustainability. For example, our Water Taskforce, which is working on drafting a Water Action Plan to help us achieve our goals for reducing potable water use, has representation from our Plumbing department, Capital Programs, Landscaping, EH&S and Energy Services (our cogeneration plant uses 20% of our overall water consumption), as well as faculty and student members. Having that broad expertise and decision-making authority at the table will enable us to take a truly “system approach” to campus water management. Building bridges across organizational silos and creating integrated decision-making is key to institutionalizing sustainability.
JW: It was great seeing you last week at the AASHE 2012 conference in L.A. Can you tell us a bit about UCLA’s involvement in the event?
NK: Yes, we were a host institution and master sponsor of the conference, and we played an active role in it, including sponsoring the Continuing Education Units. We were also pleased to host a tour of UCLA (glad you could join us on the tour, by the way!) which highlighted several ways we’re making UCLA a more sustainable urban campus and demonstrating how sustainability can be put into practice. It included lunch at one of our exposition-style dining halls, which use herbs grown on campus and locally sourced and organic produce. We also visited several LEED certified buildings and our 44 MW, natural gas cogeneration plant, which generates 90% of the energy on campus and uses gas from a local landfill.
JW: How is UCLA tracking its progress toward sustainability?
NK: We use a number of different metrics. Our UC Sustainable Practices Policy has concrete targets, such as by 2020 reaching 1990-level greenhouse gas emissions, 20% sustainable food purchases, 20% reduction in potable water use per capita from baseline, and zero waste. We were also a charter participant in AASHE’s STARS program, which covers all aspects of campus sustainability from education and research to operations, investment and diversity. This year I’ve been serving on the STARS Steering Committee and helping to develop STARS version 2.0, which is now open for public comment.
JW: What campus sustainability successes are you most proud of?
NK: Probably our progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Our policy target is 1990 levels by 2020 and our ACUPCC goal is climate neutrality by 2050. Since 1990 we have grown more than 40% as a campus – adding more than 8 million square feet – yet we have been able to keep our emissions almost level. This has meant a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per square foot of almost 27%. We still have a long way to go towards climate neutrality, but I believe our progress so far sets an important example. And we’ve been able to achieve these reductions through direct measures – such as energy efficiency and efficient on-site power production.
While lighting and HVAC retrofits, occupancy sensors, and other efficiency and conservation projects might not be as sexy as renewable energy projects, they can have a significant impact. And even more importantly, they show that it’s possible to address climate change and sustainability in a way that‘s financially feasible and responsible, even in the toughest budget climate.
On the mobile emissions side, as you know, LA has a reputation as the land of the automobile and sprawl: the average drive alone rate for the area is more than 70%. But through our award-winning Transportation program’s comprehensive suite of initiatives – transit subsidies, carpool matching, vanpool, car sharing, cycling programs, etc. – we’ve been able to get to where almost half our staff and three quarters of our students commute by sustainable means and don’t drive alone to campus. If we can make that happen in Los Angeles, it can be done anywhere! We are also partnering with other universities, businesses and government through Clean Tech Los Angeles to grow sustainable business and clean technology throughout the region.
JW: What’s your greatest challenge?
NK: Hmmm…getting enough sleep? Ha. Though finding a sustainable work pace can be tough, my greatest challenge at UCLA is probably communication. With a population of 70,000, many of whom turn over each year, education and outreach is a constant challenge. Surveys we’ve done, and feedback I get from students, staff, and faculty at UCLA show that most of our community cares about social and environmental issues, but many don’t know how they can get involved, or what the university is doing in sustainability. We have the usual channels of communication, such as newsletters, the website, and social media, and articles in our student and staff newspapers, but in a media saturated world it is hard to break through. We’re trying to get more creative in our approach. One great project – a collaboration between UCLA Communications, Athletics, and a student group called the Film Production Society – was the creation of a public service announcement (PSA) starring the UCLA Basketball Team, which we play in the basketball pavilion before all of the games.
JW: How are you addressing the social dimension of sustainability?
NK: Addressing the social equity piece of the sustainability puzzle can be more complex than the environmental piece – harder to measure and quantify. We do have many programs that address the social dimension – from community partnerships to diversity programs – and one area we’re trying to tackle more as a system this year is socially responsible investing. Some programs, such as a student initiative called Project Greenlight, address the social and environmental dimensions. That program provides education and information about energy efficiency and cost savings to low income neighborhoods. Another example is the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety & Health (LOSH) Program’s Green Jobs program. This grant-funded education and placement program for unemployed local community members covers a breadth of environmental and sustainability topics, including LEED standards, construction safety, green chemistry, and environmental justice. Participants also get other job and life skills training, such as construction math, resume preparation, and interview skills.
JW: I understand you completed a full Ironman distance triathlon in 2010. Impressive! Is that how you spend your free time?
NK: I did Ironman with Team in Training, a program of the Leukemia Lymphoma Society, in honor of my mom who is a Lymphoma survivor. The training took a lot of time and dedication that year, and I am not training for anything currently, though I do love to go cycling and swimming when I can. Training for the full distance is a serious time commitment, but Team in Training also has shorter distances available. I highly recommend the program for anyone considering trying a long distance run or triathlon. I wasn’t an athlete growing up – I was a marching band nerd – but they have amazing coaches who can work with any beginner and help you go the distance. My teammates were amazing, everyone was so supportive and collaborative, and so dedicated to the cause. It was truly a life changing experience.