Confronting Climate Change

By Kate Whitbeck, communications and relationship manager, Sustainability Office

What if climate change wasn’t a terrifying specter threatening our future? What if it were an opportunity—an opportunity for research, investment and growth? An opportunity to right wrongs and restore balance? An opportunity to build stronger partnerships and collaboration and, through them, healthier robust communities able to withstand change?

As a tier-one research institution with a world-class health center, the University of Utah is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this opportunity and develop new approaches to cross-cutting interdisciplinary research addressing climate change.

This has been a year of bold action for the university in establishing its position as a leader in the climate change movement and embracing the opportunity.

In April 2019, U President Ruth V. Watkins signed the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments renewing the university’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050 and placing the institution on a path toward resilience and adaptation. That same month the university joined the University Climate Change Coalition, a group of 20 leading North American research universities—including University of California; University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Michigan; and others—that have committed to mobilizing their resources and expertise to accelerate local and regional climate action in partnership with businesses, cities and states, foundations and other organizations.

“We understand the important role higher education plays in building a sustainable society. As a public research university, we are committed to generating new knowledge in areas relating to sustainability, and to implementing best practices in university operations,” Watkins said. “This work highlights the interconnections between humans and the environment and allows us to address the urgent sustainability challenges of our time. We look forward to working with other leading institutions across North America to build critical momentum to affect change on a national and global level.”

A combination of factors spurred these actions. In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report urging institutions and countries around the world to reduce their carbon emissions by at least 45% of the 2010 level by 2030 and to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by no later than 2050 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. The report’s findings indicated that the immediate consequences of climate change would be “far more dire” than previously thought and acknowledged that avoiding these consequences will require “transforming the world economy at an unprecedented speed and scale.”

Our graduating class of 2020 will reach the mid-career point by the time the impacts of climate change begin to take devastating effect. Recognizing the need for urgency, U students issued a resolution to the Academic Senate calling for a reaffirmation of the university’s commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions. The resolution cites the IPCC report and references “the intergenerational impact of climate change wherein the consequences of each generation’s action affect successive generations’ environmental and physical health and their access to resources.”

The resolution called for the university to use its vast resources and collective brain power to explore bold and innovative solutions, serve as a living lab to address climate change, work in collaboration with community partners and establish a Presidential Task Force on Carbon Neutrality to evaluate and recommend options to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. Among other topics, the students asked that the task force reevaluate the appropriateness of the university’s 2050 deadline given the urgency detailed in the IPCC report. The resolution passed the Academic Senate with unanimous support.

In mid-August, Watkins and Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, addressed members of the newly formed Climate Commitment Task Force at its first meeting. The task force was called upon to do the following:

  • Lead and complete an initial campus community resilience assessment, including initial indicators and current vulnerability building up to a Community-Campus Climate Resilience Action Plan in 2022
  • Set an updated target date for achieving carbon neutrality
  • Define actions to make carbon neutrality and resilience a part of the curriculum
  • Define actions to expand research in carbon neutrality and resilience

Keith Diaz Moore, in his role as interim chief sustainability officer, and Brenda Bowen, director of the Global Change & Sustainability Center, serve as co-chairs of the task force. While the task force contains key players from across campus, it will be calling for input from additional groups and forming sub-committees to collect, gather and analyze information as it develops a plan for the future.

“Let us use this challenge to accelerate achievement and contribute to healthier communities and a healthier world,” Reed said. “Our university doesn’t operate in isolation, it is part of a greater ecosystem and partnerships are key. Our approach must be based on the integration of social equity, ecological integrity and economic security.”

New leadership will be driving these dramatic changes across campus. A search is currently underway for a new chief sustainability officer, who will take over as co-chair of the task force and be responsible for strategic planning and implementation of the institutional sustainability efforts at the U.

All these efforts are transforming our campus and helping us prepare for the future. Our goal as an institution of higher education is to prepare our students to thrive in an everchanging world. We need to prepare them for the planet they will inhabit in 2050, which will be vastly different from the planet we inhabit today. Our success and their success depend on the engagement of the entire community and benefit the entire community. It will take one U to build resilient communities where we can grow, thrive and enjoy the same quality of life that we enjoy today.

A Sustainable U

Over the past several years, the U has made significant progress in becoming a more sustainable institution. Here’s how:

  • In 2018, the U achieved its lowest total energy consumption and lowest total energy cost since 2010—despite a 23% growth in total building area over the same time span.
  • From 2017 to 2018, the U reduced local emissions by 3.2%.
  • The U will be investing $2 million to improve energy efficiency in existing buildings over the next year.
  • The U has crafted a seven-year plan to invest $22 million in strategically replacing assets and other efforts designed to reduce the university’s carbon footprint, which is expected to result in net savings over a 21-year period.
  • Gardner Commons is the U’s first net-zero ready (all electric) building and the U is exploring ways to electrify all future buildings. By 2021, the U expects two-thirds of its electricity will come from renewable sources.
  • Investments in active and sustainable transportation have led to a 25% expansion of dedicated bikeways on campus.
  • Currently, 48% of commuters choose a mode of transportation other than driving alone to campus. These transportation choices significantly reduce noxious tailpipe emissions and help clear our air.
  • The U is implementing plans to divert all food waste from the landfill, which will dramatically improve our diversion rate.
  • A major upgrade to the campus irrigation system is projected to save more than 87 million gallons of water per year.