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Opinion: University’s 2020 sustainability goal in need of a desperate status update

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UD's Co2 Emissions + harker Elizabeth Debrabander /THE REVIEW
“The expiration date for this promise of environmental leadership now sits, expectantly, on the horizon of the new decade.”

Senior Reporter

In 2008, under the administration of University President Patrick Harker, the university set a goal to reduce its carbon emissions by 20% by 2020. At the time, the announcement was hailed as one of the most ambitious climate commitments made by a major university.

The following year, this announcement was backed up by a Climate Action Plan (CAP), announced on the 39th annual Earth Day, to much fanfare, I imagine, in that packed Rodney Room of Perkins Student Center.

The CAP itself is a 44-page document outlining and assessing the complex system of greenhouse gas emissions on campus (primarily, from energy consumption of buildings and transportation) and the steps necessary to create a more sustainable system within this ten-year timeline.

“This Plan is a living document with an expectation that changes will be made as new opportunities and technologies arise,” the first page of the CAP reads. Yet, the CAP has not been updated since the original version was first published in 2009.

With 2020 almost a month away and quickly closing in, this goal is in need of a desperate status update. Are we on track? Are we falling behind? Will the university fulfill its climate promise?

Seven years after pledging to this lofty environmental commitment, Harker resigned to assume the presidency for the Philadelphia Federal Reserve. That same year, in 2015, the university also appointed its first and, currently, only Sustainability Manager. (The timing, quaint enough, as if to signal a transference of accountability.)

A powerpoint by Michelle Bennett, the Sustainability Manager, claims that the university has reduced its emissions by 14.6% as of 2018, from its baseline year of 2008. Yet another presentation, also by Bennett, says that only half of the 5.7% total decrease in emissions as of 2016 can be attributed to university action.

This qualification puts into question whether or not the 8.9% leap in reductions between 2016 and 2018 is also not wholly attributable to university action. Moreover, this significant reduction over just two years has gone curiously understated. What happened in that brief period of time to produce such a drastic change? And what has been done so far this year, and what must be done in the remaining weeks, to materialize the final 5.4% reduction of emissions?

The greatest concern is that there is no way of knowing for sure.

Foremost, it is troubling that this information is not readily accessible to students. In that, one must either immerse oneself in sufficient enough research, or have Bennett give this presentation to a class or student organization directly in order to inform oneself on the status of such an important university initiative.

For this Green Issue, Bennett herself has been inaccessible, despite the central importance of her role on all matters pertaining to university sustainability. This has further exacerbated the lack of transparency between university activity and student awareness.

Informational resources that are provided by the university and which are available online are either outdated or insufficient.

The university’s dedicated sustainability website (which is reasonably up to date) even displays a countdown clock to 2020 that is incorrect, and off by a whole year.

At the time of her appointment, accompanying Bennett was the Sustainability Task Force, a collective of volunteers and advocates from six different campus environmental committees. Information on the Task Force can only be found on a vague, outdated and mostly abandoned WordPress site that would otherwise be rendered defunct were it not for the blog posts which sparsely populate it.

Even still, the Task Force is no longer a functioning group and has since broken up into its constituent organizations.

“They had the mission, but they had no resources or infrastructure; there was no accountability to keep them motivated,” Bennett said in an article for The Review last year.

In fact, Bennett and her small team of interns and volunteers have been assigned no budget from the university, making all too evident that the university has completely failed to supply the resources and appointed persons necessary to effectively see to the fulfillment of the CAP, or to hold accountable to the university’s 2020 goal.

Given some of its more recent expenditures, such as those now manifest on South Campus, it is also clear that the university is not lacking in such financial resources to warrant the complete underfunding and disinvestment of a critical campus sustainability initiative.

The one-woman advocacy effort is, through no fault of Bennett’s, simply not enough to tackle the climate burden of the entire campus, such that it seems as though the university is turning a blind eye to everything: from students’ sincere expressions of concern, to their doomsaying over megaphones.

The Climate Strike, which took place earlier this semester, assembled students, faculty and climate protesters from across Newark not just to doomsay, but to demand action, from local to global scales, especially when inaction and complacency echo a far too common narrative for what many have called the existential crisis of our time.

Climate change is the single most important priority facing humanity. The university endlessly boasts that it is a leading institution. The expiration date for this promise of environmental leadership now sits, expectantly, on the horizon of the new decade.

Jan Castro is a senior news reporter for The Review and a junior at the university with majors in English and Geography and minors in environmental humanities and journalism. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the majority opinion of The Review’s staff. He may be reached at Jan@udel.edu.

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