Unsustainability Pt. 2

University LEED certified buildings not good enough for 2030 campus goal

tony
The Spectrum

If you hold a carrot on a stick in front of a farm animal, no matter how lethargic, it will go where you want. I’ve seen it in cartoons. 

Likewise, the UB Sustainability lures us (environmentalists) into complacency with positive press, prodding and propagandizing us with ecological virtues. 

They expect us to believe that campus will be carbon neutral by 2030 despite that we now rely overwhelmingly on fossil fuels like natural gas and gasoline for energy and transportation. 

Further, carbon audits are not publicly disclosed, meaning that the pathway to carbon neutrality is not substantiated by any data. This indicates that there is perhaps no plan of action and carbon neutrality is a matter of fantasy. 

This is the second column of a five-part series on the sustainability problem at UB. The purpose of this edition is to scrutinize the university with respect to its current Climate Action Plan, for lack of action. 

Achieving carbon net zero in the upcoming decades is the single highest priority in a proactive strategy to mitigate climate change, so it is very important to have appropriate action to go along with good planning. At the very least, carbon audits should be publicly disclosed.

A good way to assess progress is by looking at carbon audits. Since they are simply not available, we can only guess what the situation looks like with some help from the first law of thermodynamics. 

Energy in and energy out. We know where the energy is coming from and we can guess how it is being used. Buildings are the highest consumers where energy takes the form of heating, cooling, lighting and the other basics like charging your smartphone. 

The surest way to eliminate carbon footprint is to eliminate those endpoints of energy usage. Turning off the air conditioning during a Buffalo summer is tolerable, but turning off the heat in a Buffalo winter is unthinkable. 

A business tracks its profits and losses through a ledger.  Likewise net zero buildings are achieved using a sort of energy ledger.  

Energy-saving features of these buildings include thermal-mass heating and cooling, ducted natural light and natural ventilation. Additionally, any consumed energy can be offset with renewable energy sources, such as rooftop solar panels. 

The building is allowed to borrow energy from the power grid during parts of the annual cycle as long as the energy ledger balances at the end of the year. This is how net zero buildings are thought of and planned. Net zero communities and campuses are merely a collection of net zero buildings.

The university boasts a number of advanced, energy efficient LEED-certified buildings, eight to be exact. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and is a vague specification for high-performance buildings. They award different levels of medals for buildings with scoring based on thresholds, some instances being performance, air quality and nearby bike racks. 

LEED certainly does not certify carbon neutrality. In fact, in 2017 researchers indicated that on average, LEED buildings show 30% energy reductions compared to buildings without the specification. The improvements seem only marginal, which is perhaps because of a relaxed and flexible system for point scoring. Building owners who could invest in energy saving improvements instead install less expensive point scorers like bike racks. 

Nonetheless, this certification looks great for the owner, UB, even if it is not doing much for the environment. The LEED buildings are incredibly useful to UB Sustainability’s propaganda scheme even though it is highly unlikely that UB’s eight buildings make much more than a superficial dent in the university’s carbon audit.

Next edition, we will dive deeper into the topic of propaganda and take a look at the cogs of corporate sustainability. We will see how initiatives at the university’s sustainability office mirror those of public relation branches of fossil fuel corporations.

Opinion desk can be reached at opinion@ubspectrum.com.