On June 1, 2017, President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Since the United States cannot formally back out of the agreement until 2020, Trump’s proclamation was mostly symbolic. Regardless, the policies enacted by our current administration—including lifted restrictions on coal, eased controls on drilling, and slashed climate and clean energy programs—havecountless tangible effects.
Shortly after Trump’s announcement, Columbia joined 11 other research universities in reaffirming its commitment to the Paris agreement. The University’s internal sustainability policies seek to do the same, but they are insufficient for an institution as well-endowed as Columbia. Columbia—in repudiation of national climate negligence—must implement the most ambitious campus-wide changes for the safeguarding of the environment.
Columbia for Carbon Neutrality is a campaign that is urging the University administration to commit to carbon neutrality by 2030. Essentially, Columbia will have to entirely halt its greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere in just over a decade. In order to do this, the University will likely have to invest in more renewable resources and might also need to update its heating and cooling systems. Until sufficient structural changes can be made, the University will probably have to purchase carbon offsets to account for lingering sources of emissions. In short, to become carbon neutral, the University will need to radically rethink its operations, purchases, and greater infrastructure in 10 years or fewer.
While it might sound extreme, many colleges and universities in the United States have already committed to becoming carbon neutral. Institutions as diverse in size and location as Swarthmore College, the University of Arizona, and New York University have all signed such pledges. American University became the first university in the United States to achieve carbon neutrality in 2018—two years ahead of its 10-year schedule.
The country is taking action and Columbia is late to the party.
This commitment is economically advantageous as well. The cost of renewable energy is consistently decreasing, and cities and states provide many financial incentives for reducing emissions. Professor Bruce Usher of the Columbia Business School said, “Many of America’s best-run companies, including Apple, Bloomberg, Google, J.P. Morgan, and Walmart, have committed to sourcing 100 percent of their electricity from renewable energy, putting them on the path to carbon neutrality. These companies have made this decision primarily because renewable wind and solar power are now cost-competitive with fossil fuels, allowing them to do the right thing for the environment at no cost to shareholders. Columbia, a leader in climate research, could likely pursue a similar plan at little or no cost.”
Although the University has over $10 billion in the bank, it would be naïve to equate a large endowment to a limitless pot of funds. However, climate change must be considered equivalent in urgency to other prominent University projects. The question of whether to commit to carbon neutrality is not one of financial capacity; it is one of willingness. To whom much is endowed, much is expected.
In 2017, Columbia released its most recent Sustainability Plan, outlining a goal of 40 percent greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2030. In contrast, New York has been looking further ahead: In 2016, the city published a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. This past December, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state’s goal for 100 percent clean energy and consequently, the achievement of carbon neutrality, by 2040. Columbia, the largest owner of private addresses in New York, significantly contributes to the city’s ecological footprint and wields tremendous cultural influence. Therefore, Columbia has the ethical responsibility to lead, rather than merely follow, the ambitious goals of our city at large.
In 2020, departments across Columbia will work together to release a sustainability plan outlining its emissions targets for years to come. This campaign is timely and urgent. The day when committing to carbon neutrality is an obvious necessity will likely arrive after the last bits of hope for turning the tide on climate change have washed away.
With a mission aspiring “to convey the products of its efforts to the world,” Columbia cannot merely excel in education, research, and external projects. Its internal policies must also radically change to reflect its leadership in other fields. Through a carbon neutrality commitment, Columbia has the chance to prove to its students and the global community that true education and meaningful action go hand in hand.
The author is a sophomore at Columbia College studying sustainable development. She is from the Los Angeles area and loves perusing farmers markets, among other things. This fall, the campaign for carbon neutrality received a written resolution of support from the Earth Institute faculty as well as the backing of seven graduate and undergraduate student councils. She and her co-leader in the campaign, Meredith Harris, can be reached at email@example.com.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.