Forster: Student voice crucial to make green campus

By Craig Forster, Director for Office of Sustainability

Earth Day 2008, U President Michael Young joined more than 560 campus presidents and provosts by signing the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, aiming to achieve a climate-neutral campus. Meeting this goal is far from trivial, could take decades to achieve and will require the active collaboration of students, faculty and staff.

Since becoming climate neutral, the U is eliminating, or offsetting, the greenhouse gases that are emitted when fossil fuels are burned to maintain and operate the University. Most electricity used to cool and light buildings at the U is generated by GHG-emitting coal-fired power plants. GHGs are emitted when natural gas is burned for space and water heating and when fossil fuels are burned in campus vehicles, transit systems, commuter vehicles and commercial flights for university travel. Becoming more efficient in energy use, replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy resources and purchasing offsets (e.g., wind power) to mitigate the GHG emissions that cannot be avoided will lead to a climate-neutral future with net zero GHG emissions. Signing the PCC commits the U to combating what many consider to be the primary cause of global climate change.

Some readers might ask, “Why should I help work towards this goal when I don’t accept the premise that human activity is causing climate change?” Two responses come to mind. First, many corporate and government entities across the nation and around the world have accepted this premise and are aggressively implementing policies and strategies that are changing the role of fossil fuels in global energy portfolios. Carbon-specific markets, akin to stock markets, are already in place to trade the carbon credits that are created when government regulations place caps on the GHGs that can be emitted by a single source. Although not yet passed, Congress has already begun debating the legislation needed to regulate GHG emissions. Whether or not you accept the premise of human-caused global climate change, economic and energy systems are undergoing fundamental changes as others move forward in their effort to reduce GHG emissions as rapidly as possible.

A second reason to reduce fossil fuel consumption is to gain valuable co-benefits. Increasing concern about U.S. national energy security is causing significant investment in major, non-GHG-emitting renewable energy resource developments-particularly solar and wind-that will help increase resilience to destabilizing events that are poised to occur in the international energy arena. By committing to make renewable energy at least 20 percent of their energy supply, many corporate and government entities (including the State of Utah) are working hard to achieve the resilience needed to deal with escalating fossil fuel costs and potential shortages. At the same time, reducing the fossil fuels burned for transportation and space heating reduces the air pollutant emissions that contribute to increasingly frequent periods of unhealthy air quality in many metropolitan areas, including those of the Wasatch Front.

What is involved in creating a climate-neutral university? How can students and the broader U community help achieve this goal? First, long-standing energy efficient programs originally initiated to slow the increase in expanding energy costs. The U’s energy conservation goals can be enhanced by the individual actions of campus community members who regularly turn off unneeded lights and computers. Second, the 17-year old UTA Ed-Pass program, that began by issuing free transit passes to reduce traffic congestion and mitigate the need to construct expensive parking facilities, is increasingly visible and accessible through the new “Go Green, Save Green” program. Traveling to the U by carpooling, riding transit, biking and walking can reduce the fossil fuel burned for commuting and minimize the need to buy expensive gasoline. Third, students and faculty are helping Facilities Management staff reduce the energy requirements of new and remodeled buildings by researching high-performance design features that include electricity generation with solar panels, thermal systems design, passive solar heating and using daylight to reduce lighting needs. Finally, it is critical that students continue to engage the university community in initiatives like those that instigated the purchase of wind power offsets using student fees, facilitated the upgrade of campus recycling programs and led the new Office of Sustainability. The student voice has proven to be a powerful force for change at the U and must continue to be heard as the U aims to become a climate-neutral campus.

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