As freshmen, Arianna Menzelos (CC ‘21) and Meredith Harris (BC/JTS ‘21) joined the Energy and Environment Committee of the Columbia Roosevelt Institute chapter, working on what was originally supposed to be a yearlong project to convince the university to adopt a carbon neutrality goal. This year, they returned to campus as leaders of Columbia for Carbon Neutrality, with case studies, a presentation, promotional video, social media and a recent op-ed in the Columbia Daily Spectator, determined to drum up broad support among students and faculty for the university to go carbon neutral by 2030.
Committing to carbon neutrality by 2030 sounds like an ambitious reworking of the university’s current emissions reduction goals. The 2017 Columbia Sustainability Plan (link to PDF) pledged to reduce emissions in two key areas by 35% by 2020, with a larger goal of meeting or exceeding the New York City goal to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. But, Menzelos argues, the university is well on track to meet these goals and should take them a step further in the next sustainability plan, due in 2020, building on the sustainability progress that they have already made. Some of Columbia’s recent actions include replacing its intercampus shuttle fleet with electric buses, achieving LEED® Platinum certifications for the Manhattanville campus, and conducting comprehensive waste audits in its efforts to meet NYC Zero Waste goals. The Lamont-Doherty campus now receives 75% of its electricity from solar arrays upstate, and was recently designated a Clean Air Campus by the NYS Department of Transportation and 511NY Rideshare.
In part because of these achievements, and because Columbia is already at the forefront of climate and sustainability research, Menzelos and Harris feel that the university should commit to being ambitious in the 2020 sustainability plan. “The problem is that there’s not really an awareness of the disparity between the really amazing environmental education and research going on at this school and the interim sustainability policies that are far behind those of other institutions right now,” explained Menzelos.
Other universities have made similar commitments, with over 370 institutions committing to carbon neutrality with a date via the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment network. When conducting their case studies to back up their ask, the students examined American University, NYU, and the University of Pennsylvania. Of the three, American University made the boldest commitment, announcing in 2010 its intention to achieve carbon neutrality in 2020. It met its goals in 2018, two years ahead of schedule, through a combination of energy efficiency measures, renewable energy generation on campus, and offsets. “We’re able to outline exactly how American University has achieved carbon neutrality,” said Menzelos, “and also make the more broad argument that if American and hundreds of other universities can make this commitment, why isn’t Columbia able to do the same, with our academic, financial, and leadership capacities?”
Columbia for Carbon Neutrality believes that the university could achieve carbon neutrality in much the same way that American has. Its suggestions for inclusion in Columbia’s 2020 sustainability plan include investigating geothermal opportunities, implementing an MTA subsidy program to encourage public transport, retrofitting existing buildings, and furthering participation in green networks and government programs. They would also like the university to commit to carbon neutrality not just for its properties, but across the whole Columbia system, including travel and transportation.
Menzelos and Harris acknowledge that there are valid financial and logistical concerns to consider in crafting a carbon neutrality plan. Among other things, there would likely be large up-front costs for retrofitting buildings, and a need to offset other large sources of emissions, like university-sponsored travel. But, they argue, the costs of energy inefficiency and the use of non-renewables will be much greater in the long term. Going forward, they hope to examine the Columbia’s energy usage statistics and incorporate them into research on the long-term economic benefits that carbon neutrality might have for the university.
The group is so far enjoying strong support from Columbia students. Columbia College students passed a referendum with 85% endorsement last spring, Barnard’s Student Government Association issued a statement of support in October, and they are gathering support from additional groups including the Food Pantry, Sprout Up, and undergraduate and graduate student associations. In the fall, the Earth Institute Faculty resolved that it “supports the efforts of Columbia students who are advocating for lowering the university’s carbon footprint, and agrees to work with other faculty and researchers, university administration and students in advancing the concept of carbon neutrality for university operations.”
The students hope that the resolution will translate to greater collaboration with Earth Institute faculty on how Columbia might best pursue carbon neutrality. “We have an entire Earth Institute who are doing research for issues directly relating to this every day,” Harris pointed out. “And we want to stress that it’s not just an undergraduate effort, but we are working with grad students now too. We want to formulate as strong of a base for our ask for the school, and to engage as many people in our campaign as possible.”
Ultimately, Menzelos’ and Harris’ passion for growing the campaign comes not just from their desire to address the effects of climate change at Columbia, but because they believe that Columbia can achieve carbon neutrality and be a model to other large urban institutions facing similar challenges. “This is an extremely pressing issue,” Harris explained, “and we need to show that we are taking action because we know that as a result, other institutions will follow.”