UB administrators showcased their progress on the university’s Climate Action Plan in a Zoom panel Thursday.
The update came exactly one year after the university first launched its Climate Action Plan, which features 10 initiatives designed to help UB use 100% clean energy for its electricity by 2025 and reach net zero emissions by 2030, among other ambitious goals.
Since that first meeting, administrators have formed 10 “working groups” — committees made up of students, faculty and staff that are each led by a “climate captain” and focused on topics like commuting, heating and behavioral changes. The groups are responsible for developing and implementing strategies for their respective initiative and were “one of the [plan’s] first achievements,” according to Ryan McPherson, UB’s chief sustainability officer.
Although the working groups are less than a year old, they’ve already produced some concrete results. Climate captains publicized the recent construction of five new solar panel sites around North Campus, the recycling of more than 12.5 tons of electronics from South Campus, the installation of more electric vehicle charging stations and new parking policies that create incentives to use electric vehicles and fund further on-campus EV infrastructure.
Perhaps the most unconventional solution to date is the university’s partnership with UCapture, a free browser extension that aims to offset users’ carbon footprint. Participating online retailers donate to carbon offset projects when users shop on their websites. UB’s UCapture group, which launched in February, has only 12 members but has offset over 103,000 pounds of CO2, according to UCapture’s website.
However, most working group captains reported having spent the majority of last year gathering information and making plans.
The working group responsible for phasing in a carbon pricing plan at UB “held a number of in-depth sessions with individuals” responsible for such systems at Yale, Arizona State University and Smith College, according to associate vice president for business services and controller Beth Corry, who chairs the group. Corry also credited professor of architecture Nicholas Rajkovich’s Sustainability Practices Graduate Studio with “determining policies, looking at best practices and formulating a final report for us.”
“Those [sessions], combined with the [New York State Department of Environmental Conservation]’s new draft carbon pricing guidelines, have provided us with a good foundation for building our system,” Corry said.
A carbon pricing system would effectively put a fee on any carbon the university emits, which would effectively force UB to explore cheaper and greener alternatives. The fee would fund environmental projects, shrinking the university’s carbon footprint while unsustainable practices are phased out.
UB is expected to have a carbon pricing plan for emissions from buildings by 2022 and will develop systems for travel, materials and food waste by 2026.
UB’s dining system is also a significant focus of the plan due to the carbon footprint produced by food waste and packaging materials. The “Taking Stock of Our Food System” working group reported they had spent the past year calculating the carbon impact of every purchase made by Campus Dining. Within the next month, the working group will use those numbers to create a carbon “baseline” for UB’s dining system, which will be used to help Campus Dining make greener food choices.
“As we move forward, we will be working to assess consumer behavior and where we can make some changes to eating habits in regard to greenhouse gases,” Christina Hernandez, interim vice president for student life and working group chair, said. “As we think about our menu options, we’ll think about more plant based options like the Impossible Burger, instead of beef. We’ll also be working to assess procurement practices to see what products could be swapped out for more local and sustainable third party-verified products.”
Administrators took the opportunity to publicize the One World Café, which they say will compost waste and use entirely compostable packaging, as a model for the rest of Campus Dining.
“This will greatly shift us away from landfill dependence and set the tone for UB to continue to move forward to zero waste,” Tricia Kandler, director of facilities and building procurement and the chair of the “Waste Not” working group, said.
But prepared videos featuring students acknowledged that the pandemic has caused the university to rely more heavily on single-use plastic packaging in dining halls.
The university had previously pledged to do away with single-use plastics by 2022.
While the majority of the university’s more ambitious plans are still under development, “the university has purchased renewable energy certificates, equivalent to our annual electricity usage, thus dropping our overall carbon footprint by a little over 30%,” McPherson said. “This has been a bridging strategy for us, as we’ve continued to investigate more direct ways to lower our carbon electricity footprints.”
Information on the Climate Action Plan’s budget was not provided during the meeting. McPherson stated at the plan’s launch last April that it was “premature for the university to give a specific budget estimate.”
Officials used the Zoom event to tout that the university is ranked No. 1 in the world for climate action in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Provost A. Scott Weber said the national attention garnered by the climate action plan has been “extensive.”
The meeting took place just hours after President Joe Biden pledged at the Leaders’ Summit on Climate to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions to at least 50% of 2005 levels by 2030, a promise which UB administrators found reassuring.
“This [Biden’s pledge], along with the infrastructure bill and so many other federal actions, is a game changer,” McPherson said. “It’s reaffirming this country’s leadership and potential and addressing one of the greatest challenges of our time.”
Grant Ashley is an assistant features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Grant Ashley is an assistant features editor for The Spectrum. He is a political science major and a (mediocre) Spanish minor. He enjoys taking long bike rides and recreating Bob Ross paintings in crayon.