News: CJ Exclusives

Higher Ed Joins Climate-Change Bandwagon

UNC President James Moeser joins climate initiative agreement

Chancellors from two North Carolina institutions of higher education — the largest and one of the smallest — have joined more than 280 other college and university presidents nationally in support of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which is to be officially launched this month.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser, and William “Sandy” Pfeiffer, president of Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, both signed on to the commitment earlier this year. The official statement of the collaborating institutions says “we recognize the scientific consensus that global warming is real and is largely being caused by humans,” and “we further recognize the need to reduce the global emission of greenhouse gases by 80 percent by mid-century at the latest, in order to avert the worst impacts of global warming and to reestablish the more stable climatic conditions that have made human progress over the last 10,000 years possible.”

The signatories to the agreement pledge to develop a “comprehensive plan” for their schools to “achieve climate neutrality as soon as possible.” Climate neutrality is the practice of offsetting any greenhouse gas production by an entity with actions that reduce greenhouse gases released into the air, leading to a “neutralizing” effect by the entity on global warming.

The commitment calls for, within one year, member institutions to complete an inventory of all their greenhouse gas emissions, and to update the inventory every other year. The schools also must set target dates and goals for achieving climate neutrality, expand research into that area, and implement mechanisms that measure the progress towards climate neutrality.

In addition, member colleges and universities must employ at least two of the following:

* “Establish a policy that all new campus construction will be built to at least the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Silver standard or equivalent.”

* “Adopt an energy-efficient appliance purchasing policy requiring purchase of ENERGY STAR-certified products in all areas for which such ratings exist.”

* “Establish a policy of offsetting all greenhouse gas emissions generated by air travel paid for by each institution.”

* “Encourage use of and provide access to public transportation for all faculty, staff, students and visitors at each institution.”

* “Within one year of signing the document, begin purchasing or producing at least 15 percent of the institution’s electricity consumption from renewable sources.”

* “Establish a policy or a committee that supports climate and sustainability shareholder proposals at companies where each institution’s endowment is invested.”

According to the ACUPCC Web site, there is no financial obligation associated with signing the agreement. The above-required policies, however, clearly have costs to the institutions, but according to ACUPCC, “the costs for achieving climate neutrality will vary greatly depending on the approach the institution chooses to take. Many actions taken to move an institution towards climate neutrality can have attractive returns on investment, which can then be re-invested in further actions towards neutrality, ensuring that the process is financially beneficial in both the short and long term.”

Moeser signed on to the effort in January. In his column for the Chapel Hill Herald that month, he wrote, “our campus, along with colleges and universities throughout the country, must lead efforts to address global climate change through research, education and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.” Among the actions taken by UNC-Chapel Hill, he said, is a pledge to “a 60-percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 by joining CRed, the community carbon reduction project, under the guidance of the vice chancellor’s Sustainability Advisory Committee.”

As for Warren Wilson College’s Pfeiffer, who joined the agreement in April, he wrote in an Asheville Citizen-Times column that “I’ve pledged that our college will take major steps to reduce carbon emissions, and that I’ll ask other campus presidents around the nation to sign the accord.”

Last month the Citizen-Times reported that other universities and colleges, including some in the UNC system, are considering participation in the commitment.

“It has some very noble goals that I think we are fully in sync with,” said Stephen Baxley, an associate vice chancellor at UNC-Asheville, to the newspaper. “But, we need to figure out how we would accomplish them.

“My only reservation on it is that it’s a very general, open-ended commitment.”
The ACUPCC was created by three other organizations: ecoAmerica, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, and Second Nature. All are environmental activist groups.

According to ACUPCC’s Web site, the need for the agreement between institutions of higher learning is urgent:

“Re-stabilization of earth’s climate is the defining challenge of the 21st century. The unprecedented scale and speed of global warming and its potential for large-scale, adverse health, social, economic and ecological effects threatens the viability of civilization.

“The scientific consensus is that society must reduce the global emission of greenhouse gases by at least (emphasis ACUPCC’s) 80 percent by mid-century at the latest, in order to avert the worst impacts of global warming and to reestablish the more stable climatic conditions that have made human progress over the last 10,000 years possible. Without preventing the worst aspects of climate disruption, we cannot hope to deal with the other social, health and economic challenges that society is facing and will face in the future.”

Paul Chesser ([email protected]) is associate editor of Carolina Journal.