As student groups push for more drastic change, Columbia’s 2020 Sustainability Plan is expected to see an increased focus on carbon neutrality and include plans for greater energy efficiency and waste reduction, according to faculty involved in the initiative.
In April 2017, the University revealed its first sustainability plan with the goal of limiting its environmental impact. This plan, however, was only meant to establish a foundation “with the expectation that another plan will be released closer to 2020 to move the University forward.”
So far, many of the plan’s transportation goals have seen visible results around campus, with six electric intercampus shuttle buses as well as hybrid vehicles for Public Safety sporting Sustainable Columbia stickers and designs. Other goals in the greenhouse gas and energy areas, however, remain less visible and harder to track consistently, aside from annual progress reports.
Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and co-chair of the Senior Sustainability Advisory Committee, said he is confident that most of the University’s established energy goals will be met by 2020.
“It’s my understanding from the Facilities people that all, or virtually all of [the energy efficiency projects in buildings outlined in the 2017 Plan] are going to be done on schedule,” Gerrard said. “People don’t see that… but it’s an important part of what needs to be done.”
Gerrard also highlighted expectations for the 2020 Plan, which will include more detailed planning around energy efficiency and waste reduction, and will mention goals concerning carbon neutrality.
According to Gerrard, the Senior Sustainability Advisory Committee met a few weeks ago to discuss the fact that the University was headed towards carbon neutrality. However, the University still does not have a hard date for when it will achieve full carbon neutrality, or net zero carbon emissions, having only matched the City of New York’s goal of committing to 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050.
“I know that carbon neutrality is a goal, but I don’t know what the target date is,” Gerrard said. “To the extent that it is achieved through the purchase of renewable energy credits and prospective purchase agreements, it can actually be done fairly quickly. It’s just a matter of money.”
With 2020 a year away, student groups have mobilized, pressing the University to be ambitious in its next steps in sustainable practices. On March 15, student groups Sunrise Columbia and Green Owls are co-sponsoring a climate strike at Low Library. The climate strike comes as part of an international student response to climate change. The movement was inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who she began skipping school to rally in front of the Swedish parliament in August of last year.
Dr. Jason Smerdon, Lamont Research Professor in the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and member of the Senior Sustainability Advisory Committee, sympathized with the ambition of student activists, but believes the University needs to take its time in order for the Sustainability Plan to be fully effective.
“Maybe it’s a little late, but I think that the way that [the University is] going about [sustainability] is the way that it needs to be done,” Smerdon said. “It’s thorough, it’s insightful, and they really are preparing themselves to think about the massive changes and choices that need to be engaged in the near future.”
Columbia for Carbon Neutrality, a student group advocating for a 2030 carbon neutrality commitment, has been working on passing resolutions with student and faculty committees to support the goal. Reaching a 2030 target date would mean that the University would achieve net zero carbon emissions ahead of all of the other Ivy League schools, as well as any other university in New York.
Arianna Menzelos, CC ’21 and one of the leaders of the Columbia for Carbon Neutrality campaign, believes that the ten year time frame from 2020 to 2030 would be a reasonably ambitious goal for the University to tackle.
“How much is [Columbia’s] Sustainability Plan really pushing the envelope and how much is it just sort of inevitable with the way renewable energy is increasing throughout the city?” Menzelos said. “We don’t quite know, but our whole campaign is focused on our belief that Columbia could be a lot more ambitious.”
Smerdon spoke in full support of committing to a carbon neutrality goal, noting that it would have to be something the 2020 plan addresses. Although achieving carbon neutrality in ten years may appear challenging, Smerdon said he thinks this kind of student determination is just what the University needs in order to continue pushing itself.
“I’m very comfortable with the idea that students should be unrealistic, expect the world in terms of how we should change the way that we’re doing things,” Smerdon said. “In many ways, today’s students have a much greater stake in what the world’s going to look like in the next several decades. They should by all means be advocating for the most ambitious, urgent plans possible.”