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An article in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education shows that a major reason for not signing the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) is concern that it isn’t achievable. The article says, “Most of the nonsigning colleges contacted by The Chronicle doubt that the ultimate goal of the commitment – climate neutrality, or eliminating the effects of greenhouse gases – is feasible.” Similarly, a related front-page feature story on the ACUPCC quotes several representatives from schools that haven’t signed who suggest that climate neutrality may not be possible.

The articles illustrate an important split I’ve noticed in the way campuses are approaching the establishment of climate goals. One approach – exemplified by the signatories of the ACUPCC – focuses on what is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming and works backward from there. The other approach – exemplified by campuses that have set shorter-term, percentage reduction targets – focuses on what is feasible and looks forward from there. Good arguments can be made for either approach. No one wants to fall short on an obligation, so it is understandable that presidents hesitate to make commitments they aren’t confident they can meet. And no one would argue that becoming carbon neutral will be easy.

On the other hand, I worry that what we perceive to be feasible today is likely less than what is actually possible, and that the feasibility approach will result in the establishment of targets which are insufficient to forestall climate disaster. To overcome the climate crisis – in which failure to meet certain targets could push us over one or more tipping points toward climate catastrophe – it seems more appropriate to set targets based on what we believe to be necessary, and then do everything we can to create the conditions under which achievement of these targets is feasible.

Indeed, the feasibility approach seems to ignore the potential of higher education to fundamentally alter the assumptions about future technology and consumption patterns that provide the foundation for feasibility analysis. By implementing the research and education components of ACUPCC, higher education institutions can accelerate technological and behavior change and thereby help to create conditions under which achieving the operational components is more feasible.

Whether campus carbon neutrality will be necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate destabilization is an open question, and at some level, is unknowable. My sense is that it will be necessary. Determining the exact reductions necessary to avert dangerous climate change is far from an exact science, but there seems to be fairly broad consensus among scientists, policy-makers, and advocacy groups that reductions of 80 percent or more are necessary by mid-century. Some go even further, with one recent report suggesting that wealthy countries like the US will need to cut emissions to 95 percent below 2000 levels by 2050 in order to have just a 50 percent chance of holding the temperature increase to less than 2°C.

For society to meet these targets, higher education will likely need to reduce its emissions by substantially more than society as a whole so as to leave room for other critical, carbon-intensive sectors to continue to function. With its tremendous intellectual capital and a large supply of students eager to help cut emissions, it is reasonable to expect that higher education will be able to make far greater reductions than many other sectors of society. Ultimately, if higher education intends to be a leader in the movement to reduce emissions, in the way that it has traditionally led other societal changes, it will need to reduce it’s emissions by much more than 80 percent.

Taking these factors into account, it is hard to see how broader society will be able to achieve the targets described above if higher education has not achieved carbon neutrality, or something very close to it, by mid-century. As a result, questions about whether campus carbon neutrality is feasible or not almost seem beside the point – if higher education isn’t virtually carbon neutral by 2050, we’ll likely have missed the opportunity to prevent climate disaster.