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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Carbon Neutrality at the University of California is a form of Climate Change Denial

by Cathy Gere and Adam Aron,  professors at UC San Diego

Much has been written about the problem of denial of climate change science. But the University of California exemplifies another, possibly much tougher, problem: How do you go from acceptance of the science to action? 

The UC is a leader in climate change research and policy. And yet, its ten campuses emit more than a million metric tons of CO2 every year from burning natural gas, a fossil fuel, to provide heating, cooling and electricity. Many in the current generation of UC students -- increasingly aware of the extent to which global heating poses an existential threat to their futures -- are asking themselves why a university that has done so much to raise the alarm about greenhouse gases has done so little to curb its own emissions.

In 2013, then-UC-president Janet Napolitano launched the ‘Carbon Neutrality Initiative.’ This unfunded mandate, handed down from the Office of the President to the individual campuses, promised that the university would go ‘carbon neutral’ by 2025. 

In the first few years, the focus was on energy efficiency measures, such as better insulation, and lights that turned on with movement sensors. These efforts were successful in reducing emissions, but those savings have now been erased with a dramatic new building plan at the UCs. While the efficiency gains were an achievement, the low-hanging efficiency fruit are now all picked, and the emissions goals set by President Napolitano are still way out of reach.

Three quarters of the university’s energy is supplied by natural gas, a fossil fuel, obtained by highly toxic hydraulic fracturing methods that emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The UC looked into replacing fossil natural gas with biofuels, but that is, at best, a limited solution: there are serious problems with price, scale, and supply. 

A group of experts concluded that the only path to genuine decarbonization lay with electrification of the campus energy systems, but that was rejected as too expensive. Meanwhile, billions of dollars were found for new buildings.

So, with minimal investment in genuinely decarbonizing the university’s energy systems, the Carbon Neutrality Initiative is planning to make up the shortfall with inexpensive "carbon offsets." These are schemes to which institutions and individuals contribute, to try to "make good" on their own greenhouse gas emissions: for example, UC continues to burn natural gas while paying for forest preservation somewhere else. These carbon offsets have been called ‘licenses to pollute’ and likened to the ‘indulgences’ of the Catholic church (a pay-for-prayer scam). Thus, for the UC, ‘carbon neutrality’ does not mean reducing its emissions; it means paying people elsewhere (generally in low-income countries) to reduce their emissions while we go about business-as-usual.

Along with many members of the wider climate action and climate justice movement, we object to offset in principle and in practice.

First, we object to offsets in principle. The idea that we can pay someone in a poor part of the globe to reduce their emissions so that people in the richest country in the world can continue to burn fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases is morally bankrupt. Even if it works exactly as promised (which we very much doubt), all that ‘carbon neutrality’ achieves is the maintenance of the status quo. The IPCC 2018, backed by the world's governments, was very clear: we need to reduce emissions by about 50% by 2030 from 2010 levels to have a chance of keeping global heating to only 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. So the UC must stop burning natural gas. It can also, at the same time, support reforestation projects. The latter is no substitute for the former.

Second, we object to offsets in practice. To take just one example of an offset program that the University has already mooted, indigenous reforestation in Ecuador, this can hardly be computed in terms of sequestered tonnes of CO2. 

For such a scheme to work, trees have to be planted across an enormous area and reach maturity. Wildcat logging, mining and agricultural encroachment have to be held at bay. Political agreements have to be honored without corruption. How likely is it that all these things will hold true at a time when the climate emergency is accelerating and countries are experiencing increased instability as a result?

The UC is currently soliciting feedback about the carbon offset program from members of the university community. We are urging the administration to abandon the offsets program publicly, and to redirect the resources set aside for it into planning for electrification of the campus energy systems. 

Any path to stopping global heating must pass through genuine decarbonization of our infrastructure. Investing in a false accounting of ‘carbon neutrality’ is a form of climate denial: it denies the reality of our emissions and our responsibility to curb them. The UC prides itself on being a climate leader; we want the university to lead the world in real solutions, not in greenwashing.


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