University behind schedule on ambitious Ten-Year Climate Action Plan
Almost a decade after the launch of its Climate Action Plan, the university’s greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 5.9 percent — a figure more than 70 percent short of its goal of 20 percent carbon reduction by 2020.
The 2008 senior class gift funded the establishment of the Carbon Footprint Initiative, which kickstarted a wave of community efforts to raise awareness about the collective impact that the university’s campus emissions have on the local environment, and what that means for global warming. The Initiative was the “first-ever effort to identify, in a systematic manner, actions to reduce our carbon footprint,” according to the Climate Action Plan. It compiled a comprehensive carbon inventory of the campus.
The research and experimentation conducted by the Initiative set a baseline for the university to learn how and where the school releases emissions, how much exactly it was emitting and precisely which greenhouse gases it was emitting.
“Emissions from activities related to the operation of buildings and the activities conducted within them are the primary source of University CO2 emissions,” the Climate Action Plan said. “Building emissions at the University of Delaware are a result of many different processes and powered by burning a variety of carbon based fossil fuels … the inventory portion of the carbon footprint project revealed opportunities for improving energy use practices and technology at the University.”
Patrick T. Harker, a former university president, used Earth Day in 2009 to officially act on these opportunities for improving campus sustainability. He announced to a packed crowd in the Perkins Student Center that the university was henceforth going to be making huge strides to go green.
Harker set in stone ambitious long-term goal to attain carbon neutrality and shrink the university’s carbon footprint by 20 percent by 2020. The plan — which was at the time the most aggressive commitment by any university or college in the world, according to John Byrne, director of UD’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy — also set other interim benchmarks for campus emissions that included reductions of five percent by 2013 and 10 percent by 2015, compared to the 2008 carbon levels measured by the Initiative. The end goal is to hopefully reach complete carbon-neutrality by 2050.
“At the time, I was in graduate school all the way in Australia, and even I heard about it,” Michelle Bennett, the university’s sustainability manager said. Bennett’s position was introduced as a Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) objective to hire leaders who could demonstrate the school’s intent to effective pursue a “green buildings” strategy and sustainable transport system.
“It would be a heavy lift to get the money for these projects, then hire someone to put it into place, then try to get the entire community on board, etc.,” Bennett said.
The Climate Action Plan explicitly states that “without an engaged and committed university community, the University will not reach carbon neutrality.” Yet, the Climate Action Plan itself is not published anywhere for students or other community members to find. Moreover, a simple internet search for the CAP directs users to a webpage with a single paragraph describing the goal broadly, and a link to “learn more about the Climate Action Plan” that leads to a cycle of broken links.
“Students just don’t know about the Plan,” Andrew Ross, an environmental humanities professor in the Department of English, said. “There seems to have been a shift in priorities for how the school goes about getting students and faculty members to actively participate in green strategies.”
While the university has developed greener strategies, like upgrading to energy-efficient LED lighting in campus buildings, campaigns to increase the population and physical size of the community, such as Delaware First, are a clear indication of how the current administration’s priorities are different from the Harker administration.
“Delaware First definitely poses a great challenge,” Bennett explained. “But, UD engineers are extremely eco-friendly and they try to make the case to upgrade existing buildings and technologies to be more sustainable and environmentally efficient.”
According to the university’s sustainability website, the total student body has increased by 15 percent since 2008, and the number of buildings per square feet increased by 14 percent since the Initiative collected data in 2009. While some may argue that an influx of students could actually be beneficial to raising awareness about the harmful effects of climate change, a Los Angeles Times article from 2015 addressing effects of population growth on global warming revealed that “ … the reality is that unsustainable human population growth is a potential disaster for efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.”
Nevertheless, according to the Climate Action Plan, “the second largest share of total University emissions stems from transportation related emissions. Transportation emissions are caused by the burning of fossil fuel consumed by the vehicle fleet as well as from campus community members commuting to and from the University using their own means of transportation.”
Expanding the university community necessitates more construction to make the campus more appealing and accommodating — more construction leads to an increased total enrollment, more students requires hiring more teachers, more teachers means more daily commuters and more commuters on the road means an increase in the amount of carbon emissions released into the ozone layer.
“It will be at least ten more years until greater progress is made,” said Bennett.
The Sustainability Task Force fell apart for unrelated reasons, but the core leadership eventually moved on to greener pastures.
“They had the mission, but they had no resources or infrastructure; there was no accountability to keep them motivated,” she explained.
“We’re starting to look at the next Climate Action Plan. I want to bring the academic community in further because they started the first one,” Bennett said. “I want to tie in the city too, since we make up about 70 percent of Newark, whatever we do on campus dramatically alters what happens on the city scale.”