On Thursday I participated on a panel at the Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium Conference in Burlington, VT. Our panel hosted a discussion about how universities and colleges (650+ of whom have signed the Presidential Climate Commitment (PCC)) should consider financing their efforts to become carbon neutral.
Not surprisingly, at the time they signed up most institutions didn’t focus of the financial costs for going carbon neutral – now a few years later it’s becoming more clear that the big issue (beyond behavior change) is where is the money to make this possible?
Today, getting an entire institution close to carbon neutral can only be achieved by purchasing REC’s or offsets. This is probably a reason why Harvard and Yale have yet to sign the PCC, as they would be perceived as buying their way to neutrality with their now smaller, but still large endowments.
The good news is that the PCC goals are LONG TERM – when you’re an institution with plans to be around for the next 100 years, you can talk about the year 2050 in academic terms. However, each year that passes after making a PCC announcement it will become more clear how unprepared these institutions are to make significant progress, except through buying REC’s and offsets. There’s no silver bullet for Mr. University (or anyone else) to pay for new solar arrays, CHP systems or all new EV fleet. An extra green student fee won’t do it. Most have already attacked the “low hanging fruit” early on – so their respective annual report cards will be pretty hollow without some serious investment.
Which is why I’m a bit skeptical about the chance of success for the PCC.
Compare the PCC to the EPA’s Climate Leader (CL) program. CL has had similar signup momentum with over 250 large companies committing to reduce their climate impact over a multi-year period. Where the PCC talks about Carbon Neutrality in the next 20-40 years, the Climate Leaders’ goals are typically for 10-15% reductions over a 3-5 year period. Where the PCC members chose to require a profound multi-decade goal, CL members chose Kyoto-like targets. The CL annual reduction targets are being tracked and several corporations are now preparing their next targets, having achieved their initial targets in the last year.
The climate problem isn’t going away in a few years. While both goal systems can work, only CL can be measured and reported in a way that allows for learning, revising and setting new direction in an iterative fashion. Even grand challenge goals need to give folks a more likely chance of success in reasonable timeframes…
So we spent our time in the panel talking about lifecycle costs, energy performance contracts, taxable vs tax-free capital and power purchase agreements. My expectation is the the university/college market will come quickly to the right decision – the only way to make a near term dent in their GHG emissions is to finance there way there.