If Campus Climate Neutrality is the Answer, What was the Question?

October 1, 2015 | 0 comments

Mark Trexler. Picture courtesy of The Guardian.

In this post, Mark Trexler addresses the problem of education for climate neutrality. Trexler earned his Ph.D. from the U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Public Policy in 1990. He is currently building better tools for communicating climate risk.  Through the Climatographers (www.climatographer.com), Trexler is constructing a first-of-its-kind knowledge solution for climate change, the Climate Web. You can read about the Climate Web in “The Implications of Accepting the Wickedness of the Climate Change Problem.”

You can read our initial post on “Sustainability and education for climate neutrality.” We have also featured Dan Kahan of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project with his post titled, “Summon reflective, serious people and inspire them.” More posts on this topic will be forthcoming.

The intent of the ACUP’s Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) is admirable, as reflected in ASU President Michael Crow’s statement that “universities must take leadership roles to address the grand challenges of the twenty-first century, and climate change is paramount amongst these.” Campus footprinting, waste minimization, public transportation, student engagement – which the Climate Commitment calls on universities to do – are all to the good.

In 2006, we authored what may have been the first guide to climate neutrality. Since then, we have realized that there is a big difference between thinking about climate neutrality as a “journey” as opposed to seeking it as an “outcome.” If approached as a “journey,” committing your campus to becoming climate neutral can serve as an ongoing powerful vehicle for introspection, learning, and behavior change. If approached as an “outcome,” however, what often happens even at well-meaning companies and municipalities is:
1. A decision is made to go climate neutral “for the planet”
2. A person or committee is charged with making it happen
3. The focus quickly turns to cost, and “how cheaply can we make it happen?”
4. Cheap carbon offsets and Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) are purchased
5. Climate neutrality is declared!
The only problem is that this “climate neutral emperor” isn’t wearing any clothes. Most cheap offsets and almost all RECs are nothing more than hot air. They are marketing gimmicks that persist because they’re a “win-win” for both seller and buyer: one makes money, the other saves money. Climate change itself couldn’t care less.

Just a few weeks ago, our local City Council spent about $25,000 to purchase “renewable energy” from the local electric utility. The city now claims to be 100 percent wind-powered. In reality, the city (and more importantly, the world at large) is no more wind-powered today than it was before the council got out its checkbook.

RECs are simply a piece of paper attesting to the generation, somewhere, of a MWh of electricity from a renewable source. REC marketers claim that purchasing RECs “increases the demand” for renewable energy. The only serious research on RECs, however, concludes that voluntary RECs are far too cheap to influence investment decision-making ($1 as opposed to at least $10), and don’t translate into the long-term purchasing commitment that one would need to have such an influence on demand. As a result, the research concludes, voluntary REC markets have done nothing to increase renewable energy generation, reduce carbon emissions, or mitigate climate change. (Interested readers can dig into the technical arguments about RECs, and access the peer-reviewed literature here.) If our City Council had committed to pay an extra $250,000 annually for the next 20 years to incentivize the appropriate amount of truly new wind power, it would be a different matter. But a one-time check of $25,000 to purchase voluntary RECs has no impact on how much wind energy is produced today, tomorrow, or in the future.

These can become tricky issues, as openly discussed in the ACUPCC’s 2008 Investing in Carbon Offsets: Guidelines for ACUPCC Institutions. The report emphasizes the importance of purchasing quality carbon offsets, and even notes that RECs aren’t actually offsets. But moral hazard is a real problem in the face of the opportunity to reduce costs by 90%. Many well-meaning actors have ended up convincing themselves that cheap offsets are still good offsets, and that RECs really are offsets after all. So while disappointing, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the ACUPCC’s 2012 Implementation Guide states that “[p]urchasing Renewable Energy Credits [sic] can offset the emissions associated with your purchased electricity.” The Guide proudly notes that the ACUPCC is the third largest purchaser of RECs in the country, and is “a significant supporter of renewable energy development.” Unfortunately there’s just no analytical basis for that last statement

So What was the Question?

President Crow has stated that universities must “take leadership roles to address the grand challenges of the twenty-first century.” The ACUPCC website boldly states that “Through the ACUPCC, higher education has become the only sector in the US with a critical mass committed both to the scientifically necessary goal of climate neutrality and to preparing students to develop the solutions for a just, healthy, and sustainable society.” The ACUPCC, however, specifically sets out to avoid “political advocacy,” and to remain “policy neutral.”

The practical reality is that voluntary climate neutrality, even if done well, is an almost purely symbolic act in the face of climate change. Making a material difference on climate change requires large-scale policy-based action that internalizes the carbon emissions externality, nudges fossil fuels out of the energy mix, and drives low-carbon technology development. And there is a huge difference between “partisan political advocacy,” and “non-partisan policy advocacy.” If serious policy is indispensable to significant progress on climate change, what does the ACUPCC’s failure to call for critical policy outcomes really suggest?

Given the status of climate change as a “wicked problem,” it is “willful blindness” to believe that individuals or institutions, whether academic or corporate, can be a material part of stopping climate change through individual voluntary actions. But symbolic acts, pursued with environmental integrity, can be an important part of a larger “journey” toward climate policy and climate solutions. Without environmental integrity those acts lose even their symbolism. If climate neutrality was seen as the answer for the ACUPCC, what was the question?

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