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Uncovered: The Trials and Triumphs of Sustainability at the U

Investigative writer MJ Jewkes joins host Emma Ratkovic to discuss the trials and triumphs of sustainability at the U.
(Design by Mary Allen | The Daily Utah Chronicle)
Mary Allen
(Design by Mary Allen | The Daily Utah Chronicle)
Today, investigative writer MJ Jewkes joins Emma to discuss his recent print article on the trials and triumphs of sustainability at the U.


Emma Ratkovic: Hello and welcome back to Uncovered. I’m your host, Emma Ratkovic. And on this episode of the podcast, investigative writer MJ Jewkes is joining me to discuss his recent print story on the trials and triumphs of sustainability at the U. Hi, MJ. Thanks for joining me on the podcast.

MJ Jewkes: Hi, Emma, it’s good to be here. Thank you.

Emma Ratkovic: MJ, do you want to introduce yourself and describe what you do for the Chrony?

MJ Jewkes: Absolutely. I’m an investigative writer. I’ve been on the investigative desk since 2022 at the Chrony. I started a series that has since taken off, and [that] other writers have written for, called “U Origins,” where we investigate some of the histories of marginalization and some of the not-so-pretty things that led to the creation and the build up of the University of Utah. However, lately in the last six months or so I’ve sort of transitioned into a lot more scientific stories, including this one.

Emma Ratkovic: Very cool. All right, let’s jump right into your new story. So in your story, you mentioned that the U has held a gold rating from the Sustainability Tracking, [Assessment] and Rating System. Can you explain what the Sustainability Tracking, [Assessment and] Rating System is and how they function at the U?

MJ Jewkes: Absolutely — I know it’s a mouthful, so don’t worry about that. It’s the STARS rating. It’s essentially a national group of universities that choose to have somebody keep them in check about their work with sustainability. Universities have a very unique role with sustainability and mitigating climate change. And so STARS has sort of been a program for them to track their progress. This is all very new, none of this existed even 20 years ago. And Kerry Case, the woman I interviewed for this story, she’s our chief sustainability officer. In her interview, she told me about how a lot of this is just kind of been a learning process, not just for her in the university, but for everybody. Twenty years ago, we weren’t tracking our carbon emissions and how much water we used as universities. But because we have the role of educating up-and-coming generations, I think it’s very important that universities across the country who have a lot of influence and also contribute a lot to carbon emissions, [that] they take part in this and so it’s done nationally on paper — the U has done pretty well in the past.

Emma Ratkovic: Awesome. So what are the ratings offered through STARS? 

MJ Jewkes: The rating, it’s sort of divided into almost like elementary school, like rating systems of how many stars you get — the U is what’s called a “gold” status. However, that only lasts for a certain amount of time. So our gold rating is technically expired. And that, contrary to what you had in first grade, is not the highest level you can get. There’s actually a platinum star which a couple of universities have done, but as far as universities our size, and in our region, and with our amount of students, gold is kind of the gold standard.

Emma Ratkovic: Very cool. So you note that STARS ratings are self-reported, what is the process of self-reporting?

MJ Jewkes: All of this information that I’m going to word vomit into the microphone now is coming from Kerry Case —it’s coming from our chief sustainability officer. Essentially, none of this is done by some national board of directors who sends agents to come in and raid us and investigate us. There’s no auditing like there is with financial stability. This is all self-reported, largely because there’s just honestly not national funding to do that. That’d be a lot of work. And that’d take a lot of travel and money. So they do a self-report system, which raises a lot of ethical questions, you know, are we just out here saying, “We get a gold star, go us,” without anybody really caring? But I will give credit where credit’s due: Kerry Case has been very proactive using her previous work experience at other universities and state to sort of create an accountability agreement. So while the — what’s called the AASHE, people call it AASHE, that’s the the governing body of STARS — while AASHE doesn’t perform this and they don’t require it, the University of Utah is in in a joint agreement with … I believe it’s Weber State University and Utah State University, where they sort of do their own audits and checks and balances where they’re looking at each other’s numbers, data, programs and financials. And that way they sort of mitigate this whole self-reporting thing, which I think is really cool. However, it isn’t quite as comprehensive as the traditional audit that I think we think of. There are really — it’s selected at random what the review board actually looks at. And so in some cases, they’re looking at water usage. In some cases, they’re looking at solar panels … they’re always looking at the basics, the things that you’re going to see on STARS on their website, how well they’re teaching this and institution, but it is selected at random. So there is a vulnerability in the system where something could fall through the cracks. And that does happen. And that’s why we decided to investigate.

Emma Ratkovic: How does Case anticipate a major solar project will change the trajectory of sustainability at the U?

MJ Jewkes: She thinks it’s going to make a very big impact, and I’m inclined to believe her. There’s so much surface area on our university, you know, there are other universities in the country that have similar populations to the University of Utah, but we cover a lot of ground, and there’s a lot of building space. And so there’s a huge opportunity for solar energy to make a big dent. And if you look at where the carbon emissions are really coming from, a lot of it is from what’s called purchased electricity. And purchased electricity — while it’s been going down since 2019, it still makes up probably the biggest portion of our carbon emissions every year. And [replacing] purchased electricity would make a dent in that. And so in the article, I dive into how our solar projects, they’re ambitious, and they’re no doubt going to make some change. But there have been a lot of external factors that have sort of limited their implementation on campus.

Emma Ratkovic: Very interesting. You share that data from 2022 indicates that the jump in U carbon emissions originated from an increase in student[s] and staff commuting to campus. What solutions are being implemented to decrease the U’s carbon emissions?

MJ Jewkes: Great question. For starters, there’s an asterisk next to every piece of data that you can find and the asterisk here is 2022 is when the pandemic started this sort of, we started to pull our way out of it. And it dropped significantly from 2019 to 2020, for obvious reasons. Nobody was driving to the university, everyone was figuring it out online. And I think that even happened a little bit into 2021. However, it wasn’t happening quite as much. And carbon emissions still dropped from 2020 to 2021. The jump into 2022 was largely because we’re starting to come back to campus, right. But it also has a lot of different — it’s very complex, you know, there’s so many different elements to the problem of commuting. But you have so many people commuting to this campus because of the way that it’s designed. There’s … we all know the parking problem, we’re all well aware of not only the problem with how many stalls are available, but also with how much it’s relied upon. Because there’s, let’s face it, there’s a handful of bus lines that get here, and they’re coming every 30 minutes. And then there’s one train that gets here. But if you’re an engineering student, you’re gonna have to walk three miles after you get off the train. And so a lot of us are driving there. So yes, it has — it’s rooted a lot in, I guess, the coming back to campus. But that wouldn’t be as much of a problem if we were not so much of a commuter campus like we are.

Emma Ratkovic: And according to Kerry Case, the university’s chief sustainability officer, an ASUU resolution from 2019 that listed 12 things the university should do to combat climate change served as the catalyst for an academic senate resolution. What were some of the actions that they wanted the U to take?

MJ Jewkes: There were quite a few. There’s a detailed list of what’s included on this resolution. But what’s really important is these things that they detailed, they include things like water usage and solar projects and commuting and stuff like that. Those steps, they really were sort of the basis for a lot of the updates in sustainability that Kerry Case and her team have really focused on since then. However, I would add that while it’s fantastic that student involvement created such a direct effect, I think a lot of times that it would have been good to maybe work jointly, and to see what’s realistic and what’s not. Before we moved up our net zero date, from 2050 to 2040, we were really on pace, and we were doing well. I think some of the franticness and some of the urgency has come from moving that date up to 2040, which is not super far away if you think about it. It is a really good example of student involvement actually making a difference, because while it’s been frantic, it has created a lot of urgency, and at the very least, just talking about it. And it’s also led to a lot more programs, including sustainability-minded courses in their coursework.

Emma Ratkovic: Wow. So how did U President Taylor Randall respond to the student resolution?

MJ Jewkes: Like I said, I think the administration was very good at hearing us out. I think the ASUU resolution really was on their radar. We really respect President Randall and how he took action. He re-signed a climate commitment that presidents of universities around the country sign, so he sort of re-upped with that, and then it led to a lot of super ambitious goals. The goal setting is great, even if sometimes it might feel a little bit unrealistic. It was definitely one of the quicker reactions I’ve seen from administration on issues brought up by ASUU, which is encouraging. And I think it’s important that we remember that. However, it is also noteworthy to remember that there are a lot of different issues that ASUU brings to the administration that maybe aren’t prioritized as much. And there are plenty of evidences of that. When you think about some of the EDI things that have been going on, Mecha led the charge on a lot of different things that I wish we got as quick of a reaction from administration as we did about climate change. That’s how it is, so we focus on the on the good, and we we celebrate our wins and we keep going.

Emma Ratkovic: So what is the updated climate change plan? And how will the Climate Commitment Task Force implement it going forward?

MJ Jewkes: Great question. Sort of the headers in my article are some of the bigger issues that this task force that was created focuses on. A big one is renewable electricity, and that comes back to the solar project that’s sort of been on hold because of a lot of supply chain issues. But another big focus and a triumph — amid the trials and triumphs — was definitely water sustainability. Water sustainability has been at the top of the list of priorities since then. And I would argue that it’s gone beyond the university’s radar and beyond the task force. I heard recently, while I was investigating this, that even the state legislature — which is evident in [the 2022] H.B. 121, which I talked about in the in the article — the state legislature, which normally I am investigating things that they don’t do. However, with climate change, and with H.B. 121, a lot of government officials, especially at the state level, were actually taken in a helicopter ride over the Great Salt Lake. And they got to see firsthand exactly why the why climate change is such an important issue in Salt Lake City and how big Salt Lake’s role is in the climate fight. And I think it actually had an impact on them, which is interesting and a nice change of pace. But it led to a focus on water usage as well, which was one of the bigger key points, I think, of H.B. 121, is requiring government buildings — which people think okay, well, yeah, that’s a government building, we’re requiring certain regulations on city halls and maybe a park or two. But it really encompasses a lot more than we think about. Essentially what H.B. 121 was — it was a bipartisan bill — it prohibited new state buildings from having more than 20% of their landscaping to be lawn or turf. So it was essentially cutting down on how much grass we had to water, which is something that I have long thought we should be doing. Government buildings — that includes the entire University of Utah campus. It includes SLCC’s campus, city halls, the Capitol, which is massive and a ton of grass. And when we create new buildings, they’re required to be a little bit more like this. This is a bit off topic, but I think we have a lot to learn from the city of Las Vegas. Las Vegas has done similar bills as H.B. 121. They’ve done passage of outlawing grass entirely from new developments, which is really cool and pretty inspiring. And I think it leads to some interesting native architecture and like geographically native, just cool a lot of rock formations and desert looks and stuff like that. And so the U implemented that right away. And while they weren’t — the 20% mark is a little high and the U wasn’t required to do that, because it’s not a new building, per se, it’s been here since the 1800s — there was, I believe it was a 5% reduction in outdoor water use, and the university blew that out of the water. Case and her team really did a great job working with other departments, like they worked really well with campus planning landscapers to mitigate that, to lower it. She cites using a lot of smart watering systems, new technology, as well as what they call low-water landscaping, which is pretty exciting if you’re into that. They really did an amazing job, I think they lowered it by upwards of 25%. They lowered the outdoor water use, which is probably the high point, I think, of our sustainability efforts since the ASUU resolution.

Emma Ratkovic: So what steps are being done to meet the U’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040, rather than 2050?

MJ Jewkes: Well, I sure as hell hope it has something to do with limiting commuting. That’s been the only thing jumping, everything else is going down, including just like other on campus stationary, which has been a significant portion of contribution to our carbon emissions … even that went down from ’21 to ’22. Data for 2023 is still in the works. And so that’ll be super telling about where we’re going in a post-COVID era. However, where it stands now, a big part of what they’re working on is expanding these outdoor smart watering systems and low water landscaping using a lot more turf, a lot more rock formations and stuff like that. But what I sincerely hope they do is expand public transportation, because commuting — we can we can limit all of these things, we can limit purchased electricity, we can limit all the water usage that is humanly possible … but at the end of the day, people are still driving to campus. And that’s going to always be the biggest nail in the side, is people driving. And so I think if we can expand, I guess, awareness about public transportation, and even options for shuttles systems, because, you know, the big thing is, students can do that. But it does take more time. And we’re already showing up to class late anyways — it’s late March, we’re feeling it. And so it’s just easier to drive, but it isn’t easier to find a parking spot. And up until now, they’ve been quoted, a lot of administration has been quoted in other Chrony articles that a big reason for that is they’re trying to push more people to use public transit to take the train, take the bus, but it’s just — it’s not working. It’s gonna take working across the aisle, working with ASUU and to figure out some marketing strategies that work that get people to use that, and then make it possible for some people to use that. Maybe give the engineering students a way to get to class on time.

Emma Ratkovic: I think that’s such a big issue that our campus is facing, because everybody I know drives to school. And I know for me, I live 30 minutes away. And there isn’t any public transportation that’s reliable for me to get here. So I think it’d be great to implement more reliable transportation for students.

MJ Jewkes: Yeah, absolutely. And we’re going up in population. The amount of students that are coming to the University of Utah, it’s gone up every single year for the last five years, maybe even more. And so there’s just going to be more and more people. Housing is incrementally building — on campus housing — which in theory prevents commuting. However, it’s still a really big campus with a lot of urban sprawl going on. And so you can even live almost on campus, and you’re gonna have to drive to class. And with increasing numbers, we’re getting more and more enrollment, and it’s beating how much housing is available. So you gotta believe that most of these new freshmen coming on campus are not living on campus. They’re commuting like you and I do. And in that case, is there a viable option for them to take the train if they live anywhere on the east side? Probably not. If they live in most places on the west side, for sure not. And so it’s always going to be something that we need to figure out and while I don’t hold them to the expectation that they’re just going to fix on-campus commuting, I think just like they’re doing with water, I think you just kind of got to try new solutions, give them a shot. If they don’t work, then you move on to the next one. And you take all the media heat that we’re gonna give them, but you move on and you keep progressing.

Emma Ratkovic: Yeah, I totally agree. So you note that the U has reported that they have invested $284,000 in sustainability costs. Which environmental initiatives are included in this cost?

MJ Jewkes: Great question. This cost, this number that they’ve put in, they put it up proudly, $284,000 — which is a lot, but it’s not as much as some other universities, [which are] pretty insane. Because that’s a lot of money. That includes essentially everything. That includes the water usage, it includes the new projects of solar however, that one is still in production, so that’ll probably likely jump it by a couple of tens of thousands. But what’s really noteworthy about the money aspect of this is the amount of financial savings that we boast from just $284,000 on what’s called the SIMAP, which is [the] Sustainability Indicator Management and Analysis Platform. I apologize for all the acronyms. According to SIMAP the U has saved about $4.5 million in total. And this is dating back to 2007, before anyone even knew what sustainability was. I mean, back then, they even — they called it different things, no one really called it “climate change,” it was “global warming” still. And so all of this stuff has changed, and this is all-inclusive and includes everything. However, some of the bigger projects that are really going to make a dent, because if you look at SIMAP’s data, the U was about on track to beat our goal of 2050. But then guess what, we move it up to 2040. So the goal becomes much harder, and carbon emissions jump up, right. And so while we’re getting a great return on our investment, I think there are other data points that probably are more telling about how [we’re] doing it, which is why I thought it was important to include some of the data of financial data as well as scientific data from the University of Cincinnati, which is — both the University of Cincinnati and the University of Illinois, Chicago, they’re both very similar to the U in population size, geographical size. Some of the things that they’ve done, are very telling of what we can learn from and we can also improve upon. So we’re kind of in the middle between the two. The University of Cincinnati is doing stellar, they’re ahead of their goal. And they’ve got their own, you know, trials and shortcomings. But this number is bound to go up. Because if if we don’t start investing more now with this increased goal than it’s the goal is kind of a moot point, because we’re just going to keep going where we’re going, and that’s not in the right direction.

Emma Ratkovic: Why exactly was the goal reduced? Like why did they change it to 2040?

MJ Jewkes: That was completely President Randall after the resolution, and there’s excitement in the air during this time, you know, it’s 2019-2020. And the ASUU resolution is there. Also, it’s the pandemic. So all of us are just at home, and we’re starting to get educated on a lot of big social issues. I attribute that to the large scale, new public participation in things like police brutality protests, the BLM protests, people learning and actually hearing about George Floyd, things that have happened years before, now all of a sudden, we have time that we don’t have anything to do with. And so we start to educate ourselves on this. And I think climate change was a big one. And during this time, we start learning and we start understanding how difficult it is to change. And so it leads to large scale participation in protests. And I think the same thing happened with climate change mitigation is in sustainability, people started to realize how damaging doing nothing really is. And so it led to a lot of excitement and just kind of what I see is jumping the gun on these intense goals. And so, along with re-engaging in the climate commitment of university presidents, Taylor Randall also decided he wanted to move up the target date. If you ask me whether or not that goal was based in any sort of fact or data, or realistic expectation, I couldn’t tell you and I won’t speculate. However, what Kerry Case told me was they heard it and they just kind of hit the ground running with it. That was the order from up top, and so they implemented it into the new climate plan. And that’s what they’ve held to, even with an increase in carbon emissions in ’22, they’re still holding on to that goal. And while it is making it, you know, a little bit less likely that we’re going to hit that goal, it’s definitely prompting a lot more urgency, which one could look at as a positive.

Emma Ratkovic: So what steps has the U taken to reduce outdoor water use?

MJ Jewkes: So mostly, it’s been these new technology and sprinkling systems called smart water systems. They just essentially limit the waste that goes into water usage, which, if you live in, or have ever lived in a suburban neighborhood in the United States, you’ll notice that sometimes it’s raining outside and your neighbors are sprinkling, they’re watering their lawn during the rain. These things are, very wasteful. And we don’t take into account how wasteful they are until we take them away. And we realize that we can get by if we’re just not worried about looking like we live in England, and we have all this luscious grass and soil. You know, we live in the desert, let’s not hide that, you know, this is — let’s be a little more self aware. And so they’ve implemented that. And they’ve implemented what they call low-water landscaping, which is fun. And it’s essentially a lot more rocks and mulch and desert plants and succulents and stuff like that’s requiring a lot less watering. So these new smart systems aren’t only saving on the places where we do have grass, and we kind of need grass because we’re not going to tear up the football field, or we’re not going to tear up everything ’cause it’d be insanely expensive. And it’s good to have green spaces, in places that we’re making a lot more low-waste areas, which is good, and it’s done a long way. Like I said, it’s beat the goal by a long shot, which I will say, I think H.B. 121 goal for water reduction of 5% is kind of on the other end of the spectrum of President Randall’s goal setting strategy. I think it was pretty easy to make, you know, I think 5% can probably realistically be decreased without removing any of your grass. I think we could all lower our water usage by 5% by just not sprinkling when it’s raining, and maybe not doing it when it just gets evaporated immediately. So they did a great job, went above and beyond, and I’m glad they did because if the U’s not gonna do it, what state government buildings are gonna are gonna lead the charge of lowering water usage?

Emma Ratkovic: So how do departments at the U plan to implement sustainability into their curriculum?

MJ Jewkes: Oh, this is a tough one. How do you implement sustainability into a pre-calc class? You know, or even — yeah, it’s, it’s a tough one, and the sustainability office is well aware of it. However, general education requirements require us to learn a lot of stuff that are irrelevant to our degrees, quote-unquote, you know, irrelevant. And so I think a lot of it comes down to bolstering requirements within gen-ed, as well as strengthening requirements for sustainability-minded curriculums within relevant majors as well. Because when you bolster that, I think it kind of has a bit of a ripple effect — we’re even seeing that in more social humanities-minded majors, where environmental justice is becoming a big part of that. So you’ve got ethnic studies classes, where they’re diving into issues like Cancer Alley, and how environmental issues really are, at the end of the day, also human issues, and they impact marginalized communities and they impact social movements and social problems just as much as physical material issues. And so I think it’s just recognizing how deeply interwoven environmental issues are into the way that we exist, in who we are and how society is … even if you look at the Salt Lake Valley, the west side of the valley, where I’m from, [there’s] a lot more people of color, a lot more people on lower on the socioeconomic ladder, way more marginalized groups and yet the west side of the valley is the side with the water treatment plants that smell really bad. We’re the ones with the Bingham Copper Mine and other mines, we’re the ones who are going to feel the brunt of the arsenic in the air from the Great Salt Lake drying up, the Jordan River is extremely polluted. And [there are] less parks. But you go on the east side of the valley where there’s a little bit more money, it’s a lot whiter over there, you’re not going to find a recycling plant, you’re not going to find factories … but you’re going to find pollutants on the west side of the valley. And so these issues, different majors that people have, especially in the humanities, but elsewhere, also, they’re sort of put under a microscope when you look at them through environmental issues, as well. So I think by just recognizing how nothing is aloof from the environment.

Emma Ratkovic: In your perspective, as well as Case’s, how can faculty and staff at the U practice more sustainable living?

MJ Jewkes: If at all possible, avoid driving. Walk as much as you can. I would even say walking is even better than riding on public transportation. So transportation is a big one that we don’t think of, because it’s such a necessity for everything we do, but limiting the amount of time that you’re driving and idling your car … I think educating yourself is a big one, because most of the issues that we can that I can sit here and tell you to do to improve sustainability efforts on campus, they have caveats where it’s not completely there. For example, if you look at EVs, in theory, it’s great because it’s limiting gas and oil extraction. And that’s all well and good in theory. But when you ditch that, and you buy an EV, first of all, those batteries have to be massive. And so they have to use these interesting metals that also require extraction, like they’re extracting a ton of cobalt out of the Congo, which is super bad for their environment, and for their air quality. It also has a negative effect, not to mention, you’re still selling that car to somebody else who’s going to be driving it a lot. And so you’re just consuming — which consumption is another thing that I’ll add to my list, you know, sometimes we buy things … I’m guilty of this, everybody I think is, of buying things we don’t need. And so limiting our consumption, and being a lot more minimalistic, I think is a big way to help sustainability. But like I said, all of these things, there’s always a, “that’s great, but it’s also doing this bad,” you know, and so I can sit here and tell you to do that, but it’s nowhere near the results of simply educating ourselves because then we know exactly what — the more we know about what affects the environment negatively, the more we can sort of look at what we do, what’s the most damaging thing we do. And so educating, just learning it, understanding the issues, and then that’ll just … you’ll be able to know, govern yourself and know how to do it. Thank you for for your time for having me.

Emma Ratkovic: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for joining me on this episode of Uncovered, MJ. And I’m your host, Emma Ratkovic. And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Uncovered. Make sure to stay tuned for future episodes.

Producer and Host: Emma Ratkovic [email protected] // @eratkovic_news

Guest: MJ Jewkes [email protected] // @jewke_box_hero

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About the Contributors
Emma Ratkovic
Emma Ratkovic, News For U host
Emma is from Park City and is studying journalism and Spanish. She was an investigative writer for a year before doing full-time podcasting for the News For U and Uncovered Podcasts. She has also done work for the Park City Prospector, TownLift, and the University of Utah's Humanities Radio. She also runs an independent podcast called What's The Dilemma, which is available on most streaming platforms. She loves writing, producing, traveling, music, exercise, and hiking through the mountains of beautiful Utah.
MJ Jewkes
MJ Jewkes, Investigative Writer
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, MJ has a background in the film industry producing films that have premiered in New York City and won multiple awards. He writes to give a voice to the unheard and keep the powerful in check. He enjoys sports, art and karaoke.
Mary Allen
Mary Allen, Design Director
(she/her) Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Mary is thrilled to be here at the University of Utah studying graphic design. She feels very lucky to get to rub shoulders with the talented people that make up the team here at the Chronicle and is learning a lot from them every day. Other than making things look cute, Mary’s passions include music, pickleball, Diet Coke, wildlife protection, and the Boston Red Sox.

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