Thursday, December 1, 2011

New carbon emission plan at Notre Dame--the good and the bad

This week the University of Notre Dame made a public commitment to control its emissions of greenhouse gases (as well as reduce water use and trash generation). The article announcing the plan to the university community can be found here, and the plan itself is here.

Here's my opinion on the plan--I'm glad that we now have one, but I don't think its very visionary. I think and hope that we can do better.

The university commits to reduce its *per square footage* emissions to 50% of 2005 by 2030. This plan allows for growth in the footprint of the university that could increase total emissions. These goals will be met by transitioning from coal to natural gas and efficiency gains in energy use on campus, rolled out over the coming decades. Renewables are not part of the plan, despite significant research at Notre Dame on renewable technology and overwhelming data that a transfer toward renewables is a vital part of the solution to the climate crisis. The College of Science Committee on Sustainability also recently put forward a proposal for a large solar array that would produce 8 million kW hours/year, or ~50% of the College of Science's current electricity usage. (The COS is the largest energy user on campus.) That array is not part of the new plan. The only renewable power on campus today are solar roof panels on an engineering building and one vertical axis wind turbine on top of the campus power plant.

On the one hand, the new carbon emission plan is an accomplishment. Making public announcements about greenhouse gas emissions is a first step toward making those reductions a reality. And Notre Dame is not a place to take on a commitment without intending to follow through. Though progressive on nearly all issues of human and environmental rights in its scholarship, research, and teaching, the University has not always been aggressive in adopting those goals through its own purchasing power and its influence in higher education. So this formal embrace of an important global problem is a significant step in the right direction. Another good thing about the Notre Dame plan is that it does not use carbon off-sets to achieve its goals. Many people deserve credit for getting the university to make any carbon announcement, including staff at the Office of Sustainability and undergraduate and graduate students through organizations such as GreeND, Students for Environmental Action, and student government. Faculty voices have been important too.

On the other hand, the plan is not ambitious, and it certainly does not live up to Notre Dame's vision as being a leader in solving the world's greatest dilemmas, social and environmental. Instead, the University appears to have prioritized financial conservatism and (probably) political concerns about appearing too "green" over the opportunity to signal strong climate values. Peer institutions have signed on to larger commitments, including greater investments in renewable technology, and have made their public commitments earlier, in partnership with other universities. For example, 650+ universities have signed the American College and University President's Climate Commitment, but Notre Dame has not. Some universities has stopped burning coal already, making the switch in natural gas (that emits less carbon when burned) and other energy sources more quickly than the Notre Dame plan. For example commitments of other universities, click here. A large solar array like the on mentioned above is already under construction at Princeton and a similar (but smaller) one is going in at the University of Michigan.

The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increases every day. Each year more is released than the previous year. With each additional ton of CO2 comes a larger amount of climatic change and a greater possibility of catastrophic change. These changes threaten biodiversity and the livelihood of many of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people. Reducing our consumption of fossil fuels is, literally, the most conservative thing that we can do--it provides an opportunity to maintain life and our economy as we know it. And universities have a vital role in showing the rest of the world the importance of this problem. They can lead by example; they can convince by their actions. Notre Dame's recent plan just doesn't speak very loudly.

Despite the lack of leadership in this carbon plan, Notre Dame is a GREAT PLACE to study and work if you want to make a difference on environmental issues. The mission of the university is beautifully aligned with efforts to save the environment for the least fortunate and for future generations. For example, we have a new $10M program of research and outreach called the Environmental Change Initiative, and a strong alternative energy program called the Center for Sustainable Energy at Notre Dame. As a faculty member and scholar trying to do her own part to make the world a bit better, I'm most fearful that the new emission plan will deter the best and brightest from our institution and undermine our most central value--to be the best university that we can be. I hope that doesn't happen.

I'm both thankful for and disappointed about Notre Dame's new carbon announcement. I'm a bit worried of what the rest of the world with think of our weak statement. But I recognize that a statement none-the-less is a step in the right direction. Finally, I hope that the announcement will spawn new enthusiasm and activism from members of the Notre Dame family. I'm a member of that family and proud to be.

Below is what my one my colleagues thinks about the new plan.

Dec. 1, 2011

by John Sitter, Professor of English, University of Notre Dame
"To the editor [of the Notre Dame Observer]:

Despite the characterization of the University’s new carbon emissions goals as “ambitious” by the Observer and “aggressive” by the campus Director of Sustainability, the plan announced on November 29th is not one of which Notre Dame should be proud. A decade ago the Sustainability Strategy might have been moderately progressive in higher education circles. Now, compared to the plans of leading universities doing their parts to address global warming, it looks more quaint than visionary

The first thing to note about our plan is that it makes no commitment to absolutely reducing carbon emissions, “dramatically” or otherwise. It merely promises greater efficiency, not a smaller footprint. The 2030 goal of cutting emissions by 50% per square foot (something Georgetown commits to do by 2020) may or may not result in significant reductions given Notre Dame’s rate of growth. Keeping our plan “really flexible” means avoiding commitment.

Where we aim to cut emissions by 70%--again, per square foot—schools ranging from Cornell to Weber State University in Utah have committed to carbon neutrality by that date.  Others have set that target much earlier: for example, Montana by 2020, Duke by 2024, Florida by 2025.  Brown has committed to cut carbon emissions 42% (total, not per square foot) by 2020 and Yale by 43%, while also setting a target of getting 25% of its energy from renewable sources. While Princeton is within months of completing a large solar array to provide 5.5% of its energy needs right now, the Notre Dame administration concludes that “it doesn’t make sense for us to invest heavily in solar or in wind.” We remain wedded indefinitely to coal, which puts roughly two times more carbon into the air than does gas, while Cornell and Duke abandoned coal earlier this year, and Brown switched from oil to gas.

The new Sustainability Strategy should be subjected to a careful, campus-wide discussion and then reformulated to reflect Notre Dame at its best. We need to be leaders, not foot-draggers, in addressing climate change.  In his eloquent inaugural address, Father Jenkins urged that we strive to make Notre Dame a “ healing, unifying, enlightening force for a world deeply in need,” enlarging our vision so that no one in the future might “say that we dreamed too small.” The current plan for slowing carbon emissions is too small."