Collectively and decisively, we can set a powerful example for the next generation of leaders who will increasingly interact with one another on global issues. We can demonstrate that it is possible to reduce emissions dramatically, even while accommodating the continuing growth and development of our campuses. If we succeed, so can others.”
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We are at last awakening to the reality of global climate change. The report this month by the worldwide team of scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that global warming is unequivocal and that most of the warming over the last half century is likely due to greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. No previous report of the respected panel, which was formed in 1988, has been so conclusive. There is less certitude about what to do and who will take the initiative.
Governments and corporations are obvious candidates for leadership in confronting the threat of global climate change. But there is also need to take the battle to university campuses, where the world’s future leaders should join the fight by taking measures that communities at large will be asked to adopt.
Without dramatic action over the next half century, we face the threat of rising sea levels and massive economic disruption. Substantial costs cannot be avoided without a dramatic effort to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
Recently, 10 large corporations and four leading environmental groups announced support for US legislation to introduce a cap-and-trade system for carbon-dioxide emissions. The benefit of such as a system is that it produces a tangible limit on emissions – they are “capped” – while allowing the parties within a sector or industry whose emissions have an overall cap to buy and sell, or “trade,” portions of that total emissions allowance.
Another way to curb emissions is for governments to impose a “carbon tax” on the companies or individuals that produce emissions. A tax will produce an uncertain amount of environmental benefit, but may be more practical for reaching millions of households than a cap-and-trade scheme, which has been effective in regulating the sulfur-dioxide emissions of large entities such as public utilities.
The call for legislation is welcome news, but not enough. Our governments have failed to take effective action so far. The US is most deficient, but even among the governments that signed the Kyoto Agreement, most have not taken sufficient steps to ensure that national targets will be met by 2012.
We cannot wait for our governments to act, though they must act if the problem is ultimately to be solved. Large organizations all over the world with the power to act independently should take matters into their own hands and begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now. We need to demonstrate that resisting global warming is feasible and not prohibitively expensive. By showing leadership in action, not just in words, we will make the necessary response by governments much more likely, in part because they will be more confident that significant laws and policies in response to climate change will be accepted by those they represent.
Several large global companies, including General Electric, have started down this path, and so has Yale, along with other universities. I have called upon my colleagues at some of America’s best- known institutions to join Yale in committing to ambitious greenhouse gas reduction programs of their own. At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, I met with the leaders of 23 global universities and urged them to join this effort.
Universities are a natural place to demonstrate that global warming can be resisted and its adverse long- term consequences avoided. It is, after all, our scientists who identified the causes and effects of climate change and who research ways to address it. And it is our students who, in the coming decades, will have the responsibility for ensuring that the opportunities for the health and prosperity of future generations will be no less abundant than they have been for the generations that preceded them.
Here’s why universities must act today. Collectively and decisively, we can set a powerful example for the next generation of leaders who will increasingly interact with one another on global issues. We can demonstrate that it is possible to reduce emissions dramatically, even while accommodating the continuing growth and development of our campuses. If we succeed, so can others.
At Yale, we committed in 2005 to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below the 1990 level by the year 2020. This represents a 43 percent reduction from our 2004 level, even while our plans call for 15 percent growth in our physical plant.
We intend to reach this ambitious goal by a combination of strategies, including:
1. Conservation within existing buildings
2. Sustainable construction of new buildings
3. More efficient production and distribution of energy on campus (Yale produces its own steam, chilled water and two-thirds of its electricity by co- generation)
4. Use of energy from renewable sources on campus
5. Direct participation in off-campus production of renewable energy
We have already reduced campus greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent in one year. Among other measures, we have installed more efficient controls and sensors to regulate heat, air conditioning and lighting; we have begun to modify our power plant and distribution systems for greater efficiency; and we run our campus bus fleet on a blend of ultra low- sulfur diesel and carbon-free biodiesel fuels. A simple step we have taken is keeping our buildings a couple of degrees cooler in winter and warmer in summer than in the past.
Students have supported our commitment on many fronts. As community members, students reduced energy use in our residential colleges by 10 percent in 2006; as researchers, they contribute to the dialogue on climate science; as activists, they continue to raise the question as to how our universities ought to assist in shaping a vision for the future.
The good news is that many of the investments required to reduce carbon emissions actually save money in the long run. The astonishing news is that we estimate that we can reach our 2020 goal – a 43 percent reduction in emissions from current level – at a cost that is below 1/2 of 1 percent of our annual operating expenses. Any organization can afford this level of sacrifice to ensure the future of the planet.
Yale’s strategy depends on conservation, renewable energy and participation in carbon-offset projects in roughly equal measure. All three approaches can be part of any organization’s strategy. It is important, however, that carbon offsets produce real environmental benefit. Carbon markets in the US, in the absence of governmentally imposed caps, are immature. Carbon offsets, sometimes called “renewable energy certificates,” can currently be purchased at prices well below the cost of creating incremental supplies of renewable energy. As long as this persists, purchasing offsets in the market will have no environmental benefit. Thus, at Yale, we only count offsets created by direct investment in new sources of supply.
For institutions in developing countries, where growth needs to be more rapid, a reduction to 10 percent below 1990 levels is too much to expect. But a 10 percent reduction below today’s levels, or even a no-growth-in- emissions policy, would be a reasonable and constructive aspiration. On a global level, it would be unreasonable and unjust to maintain the wide disparity in nations’ per- capita emissions well into the future, but a worldwide collective effort in greenhouse gas reductions must still be the goal.
Universities are the natural leaders of such an effort, but other non-profit organizations, municipal governments and for-profit businesses should heed the call as well. Our future depends on it.
Richard Levin is de President van Yale University in New Haven, USA