Back in 2009, hundreds of university signed a pact committing to achieve the unthinkable: carbon neutrality on their campuses, some as early as 2020.
More than 10 institutions have reached that goal and many more are on their way, putting plans in place to reduce emissions through evinronmentally friendly projects, or offsets, that limit the release of carbon dioxide.
With a new presidential administration in place, 75 colleges and universities are hoping the United States will do the same. They recently drafted a letter to the Biden team calling to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and get on a path to hit net-zero by 2050.
“Climate change is one of the most pressing challenge[s] facing humankind, and I don’t believe it can be mitigated, let alone solved, without the collective action of our nation’s – and world’s – universities,” said Joseph E. Steinmetz, chancellor of the University of Arkansas, one of the signees of the letter. “The scale and complexity of the challenges involved, and the range of solutions required, will depend on the things that universities excel at: research and discovery, teaching and learning, outreach and engagement. It will take interdisciplinary collaboration, ingenuity, hard work, and creative problem solving, as well as the ability to communicate, educate and persuade the public that climate change is real. The earlier we accept and prioritize this goal, the better it will be for future generations.”
For colleges and universities who hope to see sea change, there are hopeful signs. The administration re-signed its commitment to the Paris Agreement, an international treaty of United Nations members that aims to mitigate global warming and threats of climate change.
Colleges are not alone. More than 300 businesses – including powerhouses Google, Apple and General Electric – are asking Biden to push for the goal as well. More than 1,500 climate experts and scientists also drafted their own letter.
Following examples in higher ed
Reaching the nationwide goal will be a monumental task, requiring a steep commitment to reducing methane gases, eliminating plastics, pushing for more electric-powered vehicles, and ensuring far better farming practices, to name a few.
The Biden administration can look to many examples around the world where change is happening, and most notably, in its own country, where higher education institutions are doing their part and leading the way through research.
“Many of us have set our own institutional emissions reduction goals in line with the Paris Agreement,” the letter says. “In some cases, we have been even more ambitious and have already achieved carbon neutrality. As you raise the bar for our national target, we will continue to ramp up our activities to move the United States forward on this journey. Our higher education institutions are well-positioned to continue accelerating the nation’s climate progress with your strong national leadership.”
More from UB: How more colleges can achieve carbon neutrality
These colleges are shining examples of what’s possible, already hitting the carbon-neutral target (where there energy outputs are equivalent or less than what they take in): Allegheny College, American University, Bowdoin College, Colby College, Colgate University, Colorado College, Dickinson College, Middlebury College, the University of Lynchburg and the University of San Francisco.
Many more are on the path.
Rider University says it is more than 25% of the way to reaching its goal, lowering emissions by nearly 40% in the past 15 years. That has been aided by a new 740-kilowatt solar array, a more electricity-efficient “Tri-gen” power plant, a SEED food waste digester in its dining hall and its continued use of electric vehicle charging stations.
“Rider, along with many other colleges and universities, have established ambitious goals to fight climate change,” said Rider president Gregory Dell’Omo. “We hope this letter to President Biden will help accelerate his administration’s action on climate change.”
Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nev., not only has been implementing sustainably improvements on campus – such as water-bottle refilling stations and further water conservation efforts – but it also helped train major car manufacturer workers working on electric vehicles through its Advanced Manufacturing & Robotics program.
“In recent years, we have made great progress toward our goal of campus carbon neutrality and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Truckee Meadows Community College president Karin Hilgersom. “We have ramped up campus infrastructure improvements and supported our student government association in advocacy for purchasing carbon credits locally. Equally vital to are providing training programs that strengthen the renewable energy economy.”
And yet, there are many institutions that still haven’t championed the initiative. The University of North Carolina-Asheville was one of those until two weeks ago, when it formally signed the American College and University Presidents’ Carbon Commitment plan through Second Nature to become carbon-neutral as soon as possible.
“In the United States there are about 4,000 colleges and universities,” UNC-Asheville Chancellor Nancy Cable said. “Today we will join the 400, just 10%, of those colleges and universities that have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050, implying that we have a lot of work to do, but we will do that work.”
For colleges and universities looking to make similar commitments, Second Nature has a lot of resources to get started. The organization implores universities to do some investigative work first before implementing one of three options (or all three) a Climate Commitment, a Carbon Commitment and a Resilience Commitment. Once a chancellor or president signs on, they receive additional information from Second Nature and start the journey to a more sustainable, climate-friendly campus.