Students of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your emissions!
A decade ago, more than 600 college and university presidents signed onto the American College and University Presidents Climate Change initiative, pledging to reduce carbon emissions to zero by some future date. Usually the date chosen by almost all presidents was in the far future, 2040 or 2050, effective eviscerating the “commitment” by deferring it until after they and their successors have long retired.
The accelerating pace of disruptive climate change is the new driver. Most contemporary reports cite 2030 as the date to get carbon emissions back to 1990 levels, to have any change of holding global warming to 1..5 degrees Centigrade. Unfortunately, last year
It’s time to reboot this effort, but to do it from the grassroots, not top down. It’s time for the next three generations of students to take on this task, demanding steady progress toward complete decarbonization by 2030. Every university is effectively a small city, usually set within a larger city. Imagine the impact of a campus decarbonization on generating ideas and political momentum toward the larger city pursuing the same approach!
Decarbonization would effect not only Scope 1 (direct combustion) and Scope 2 (indirect combustion, usually electricity consumed) but also Scope 3 emissions, which can be quite large in a university - employee and student transportation, inbound freight, embodied carbon in purchasing, food service, building materials, etc.
Imagine the opportunity for EVERY university and college department to participate, not only science and engineering, but also English, history, journalism, fine arts, architecture, IT and computer science, real estate and finance, business, agriculture, etc. Everyone has a role to play in tackling the multiple challenges presented by accelerating climate change. Students need to lead the charge, demanding a clear plan, yearly actions toward the goal, and frequent reporting back. Courses can be designed to provide input to the reports and studies about priorities, reporting, analysis, etc.
Students are best situated to motivate mass movements - the first Earth Day in 1970, largely student-run, provided a vital boost to the early environmental movement. The March 2019 Climate Strike in 100 countries showed the power of today’s students to mobilize.
What about economics? Work at Harvard in the early 2000s showed that greening the campus could provide economic returns greater than the fabled Harvard Endowment. In fact, the median college endowment return in 2017 was 8.3 percent, equating to an 8.6-year payback (Rule of 72). Most campus energy managers have dozens of projects that can’t get funded which would have better paybacks. The key is to put the energy/decarbonization manager in the president’s office with a real staff and budget, not to bury them deep in the facility management bureaucracy.
Every university and college is effectively a small city, some with as many as 100,000 students and employees, others with only a few thousand. Just about every campus is situated in a larger city. Imagine the multiplication effect of campus decarbonization efforts on the larger urban environment. Everything learned on the campus could be used in the larger community.
Isn’t it time to renew the campus commitment to sustainability with a simple pledge: Zero net carbon emissions by 2030. What we can’t get done on campus can get done through buying legitimate emission offsets elsewhere. It will take three generations of students to get this done - Let’s get started now!