Screenshot of homepage of SustainNU
It seems that lately, the narrative surrounding climate change is always upsetting.
“A lot of people say environmentalists are sort of doomsayers, and essentially they’re just always depressing people,” said Keith Woodhouse, a professor in the Northwestern's Department of History and Program in Environmental Policy.
But now, Northwestern environmentalists have some good news to share.
In an effort to reduce its impact on climate change, Northwestern released its inaugural Strategic Sustainability Plan on Oct. 3. The plan outlines actions to be taken for the next five years that will allow the university to reach its goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
“Northwestern is committed to mitigating the impact of climate change, an issue our students will face for generations to come,” President Morton Schapiro wrote in an announcement emailed to students when the report was released. “By developing a comprehensive plan for the next five years of environmental stewardship at Northwestern, we are jump-starting the University’s efforts to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.”
Northwestern has already made progress toward this goal–from its 2012 baseline – the University had already cut greenhouse gas emissions by 13 percent in 2016. By 2030, Northwestern hopes to achieve a 30 percent reduction from the baseline. Much of the plan is centered around greenhouse gas reduction to keep the University on track to reach its net zero emissions goal.
Greenhouse gas emissions on a college campus come from things like the campus shuttles and fossil fuels burned to deliver energy to buildings. Northwestern plans to convert university shuttles to electric buses and transition the shuttle fleet to run on renewable energy. The University is also planning to decrease energy consumption in buildings on campus and install solar panels.
Beyond reducing emissions, the plan outlines goals to increase the use of sustainable food in campus dining, increase recycled content of paper and minimize water use.
“When I was reading about [the plan], I was pleasantly surprised at how structured it is,” Weinberg freshman Tiboo Mehta said. “I didn’t think it would be nearly that specific and long [of] a document.”
In this way, Northwestern University has taken its first steps toward minimizing its impact on climate change, an issue that continues to become increasingly more pressing.
“The way climate change could remake the planet, it’s hard to think of many environmental problems or issues that come anywhere close to the scale and the scope of climate change,” Woodhouse said.
Woodhouse said that while climate change may not be the most immediate environmental issue – he cites habitat destruction and pollution as issues that have more current effects – it has long-term consequences that will affect us in the future if they are not addressed now.
Other universities have already made attempts similar to Northwestern’s to address climate change on campus.
According to the University of Chicago’s Environmental Research and Sustainability website, “The Office of Sustainability is currently working with members of the Sustainability Council and groups across the University to develop a climate action plan.” This plan will detail ways that the university will cut emissions by 20 percent by 2025.
In 2008, Harvard University made a plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from a 2006 baseline by 30 percent by 2016, inclusive of growth. By focusing on using renewable energy, reducing energy demand in buildings, decarbonizing the regional electric grid and other advancements, Harvard reached its goal.
Just as these institutions are setting a precedent for college greenhouse gas emissions reduction, Weinberg freshman Regan Steigleder hopes that Northwestern’s plan will inspire other universities to follow suit in making a commitment to reducing climate change.
“I think it would be a challenge for our university [alone] to have an actual impact on global warming,” Steigleder said. “But hopefully other universities recognize our efforts and start doing the same.”
For Mehta, this plan is a way to remind Northwestern of its goals and keep it on track over the coming years.
“We’ll just have to see how it goes this year,” Mehta said. “After one year, we’ll be able to look back at what we did well and what we didn’t do so well, so I think after implementing this plan, we’ll have a good way of holding ourselves accountable as an institution.”
Maybe by 2050, the Strategic Sustainability Plan will help deconstruct the depressing narrative around climate change that environmentalists seem to create. Woodhouse nevertheless warns that it is not a bad idea to be cautious moving forward.
“I think it’s an important function [of environmentalists] to offer caution, essentially, and to say that we should really stop and think about what we’re doing,” Woodhouse said, “and not trust just because we are smart and we’re modern and we have the latest technology that we’re not necessarily doing great harm to ourselves and the planet.”