Major universities join forces to slash emissions

Source: Kelsey Brugger, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Public university leaders say addressing climate change is part of their social responsibility.

The University Climate Change Coalition, or UC3, a consortium of 13 major universities including the University of California and State University of New York, launched this spring to combine its members’ research expertise to reduce their carbon footprint. It is also working with academic leaders in Canada and Mexico.

“We can use the university buying power to buy clean power,” SUNY President Kristina Johnson said yesterday at a forum held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “And I think that’s what we all want to do.”

Johnson joined UC President Janet Napolitano and Timothy Carter of Second Nature to tout their climate leadership. Their moves were influenced by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Second Nature is a nonprofit that connects higher education institutions on climate policy.

Napolitano pledged that UC would be carbon neutral by 2025. That’s a massive undertaking, considering that the California system is made up of 10 university campuses and five major medical research centers. UC purchased two large solar farms, Napolitano said, generating 80 megawatts, which translates to about 15 percent of their total energy usage.

SUNY, made up of 64 campuses, plans to have 100 percent renewable energy as soon as possible.

“This is the time,” Johnson said. “Twenty to 30 years ago, you paid a premium of about 25 percent to build a zero-net-carbon building. Today, it’s much less. The payback is very, very short.”

Both university systems have been retrofitting campus buildings to install solar panels.

All of these ideas cost money.

Johnson talked about an idea she had to raise money nationwide to build solar and wind generators. She wanted to allow Uber or Lyft passengers the option to add 5 cents to contribute to carbon-neutral investments. It turned out, she said, that an Massachusetts Institute of Technology student already had created a similar app, but it was not widely used. She suggested adding incentives such as a free ride to make the donation more appealing to consumers.

Napolitano, who served as the Democratic governor of Arizona and as President Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security, said the United States’ retreat from the Paris climate accord prompted universities to get involved. She pointed out that the federal government is not the only player in climate change policy on the international stage.

Moderator Sarah Ladislaw of CSIS’s Energy and National Security Program asked the panelists if investing in climate solutions has become less “fringe” and more mainstream during their tenures.

Napolitano said UC recently launched the Cool Campus Challenge, a competition across the 10 university campuses. She said students on some of the campuses voted to enact a fee on themselves to invest in green energy.

Second Nature’s Carter said taxpayer-funded public institutions have a social obligation to tackle these challenges. After all, he said, the mission of universities has always been to address societal challenges. “We have one,” Carter said.

And Johnson said addressing the problem is doable. She explained that a $1-trillion-a-year investment in clean energy infrastructure translates to the cost of two Starbucks coffees for every person in America — or four from Dunkin’ Donuts.