State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Students Push Columbia Towards Carbon Neutrality

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.

Columbia for Carbon Neutrality promotional video from William Ingalls on Vimeo.

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.

Arianna Menzelos and Meredith Harris
Arianna Menzelos and Meredith Harris (Photo: William Ingalls)

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.” 

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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5 years ago

While we’re working on it, a few more suggestions

* heating systems is a key one. I can’t count the number of buildings where the only thermostat is the window. It’s always interesting to study climate while the window is wide open directly above the radiator. I know they’re expensive to fix, but as we build new buildings and repair old ones, this should be key
* food waste. The amount of trash from the lunch rush is huge. How expensive would it be for Columbia to commit to composting waste, then to work with local vendors (sandwich shops, food carts, etc) to use compostable containers? It would dramatically cut down the trash we all produce here. This isn’t strictly a carbon issue, but it’s worth discussing.
* transit. Students mostly ride the buses and subways, but lots of employees drive in. Can Columbia help them ride share or find alternative? It’s a very small dent in Columbia’s carbon emissions, but could set an example for other employers in NYC.

Jacquelyn Ottman, Chair, Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board
5 years ago

I agree with James (above) that other things need to be addressed in addition to energy. Food waste is a great start, since food waste accounts for 34% of NYC’s waste stream, and nearly all of it now winds up in a landfill where it will degrade into methane (which is 25X more potent as a GHG than CO2). Another is recycling — the cans, bottles, paper, clothing and e-waste. And of course, reducing consumption overall. (Not buying/ sharing/ swapping/ reusing instead of buying new.) Most students would be surprised to learn that 42% of all GHG’s trace to the production and consumption of goods and foods.

2 months ago

I very much agree that we need to be more responsible for our environment. Let’s clean things up. Reduce all the food waste, rideshare, walk, or bike more often. Lets create or join groups that walk the streets and water fronts to pick up trash and also follow through on fines for people who litter. Let’s encourage less cloud seeding and reduce its effect on global warming and our health.. With a little push, we CAN up the anty and make small, but steady, reasonable differences that don’t hurt us at the same time. And think if the largest corporations were held accountable, wow, what a difference THAT would make. A HUGE bite. Engaging in the U.N. and WEFs global agenda, however, is not the answer, due to the other sinister plans that come with it. We can work with them towards some of their more noble goals but we should not allow them to take 100 percent control of our lives. We could even bypass the hate that will be created between us and at the same time gain cooperation for these goals by speaking out against the social credit score (Government Control Act) By engaging with local government and aiding it’s efforts to improve our world, I know we can do this on our own, especially with the help of all the new people coming into our country. Think of the positive changes that could be made, especially if it is done in a consistant, responsible manner that, in itself, is sustainable and does not reduce our personal freedoms. Let’s join our government in it’s efforts to help us remain independent, free from tyranny, healthy, and happy!

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