Today is my 65th day of quarantine. Many of you have been in lockdown longer, I know, and this quarter is not something any of us planned for. Some have returned home excited to reunite with loved ones after their 14 days of isolation, others have been forced back into living situations they had escaped by being at school, and many have stayed in Hyde Park. Whatever your circumstances are right now, we all need a little silver lining as coronavirus casualties mount. That silver lining could be a more sustainable future for UChicago.
When the world reopens, we will, globally, be in a moment of transition. We will have a chance, as many experts have noted, to hold onto emissions-reducing habits developed in quarantine and to create new, more environmentally friendly ways of living that could have lasting positive impacts on our planet. UChicago should take the return to campus as an opportunity to shift its approach to sustainability, working more collaboratively with other institutions and becoming more transparent with students, especially in terms of sharing emissions data with environmental groups on campus. The University has historically failed to take part in collaborative sustainability, but improvements over the past year give me hope that this can change. And change it must, for the coronavirus has shown us that group effort is the best way to combat global issues; embracing collaboration will allow UChicago to achieve its potential and become a leader in environmental impact in the wake of the coronavirus.
You have probably seen images comparing last year’s March and April carbon emissions to those from this year, and perhaps you were impressed, as I was, with how much lower they are now that the world is living less carbon-intensive lives in quarantine. Though the International Renewable Energy Agency predicts that the emissions will only lower by 6 to 8 percent this year, not enough to have a measurable effect on global warming potential, the reduction does show that it is possible to change the climate for the better if we work together.
Working together has not historically been one of the University of Chicago’s strong suits, however, especially when it comes to sustainability. This is true both of collaboration with other institutions and of transparency with students. The school has not taken advantage of opportunities, like the 2017 “We Are Still In” declaration, to work with other institutions: To date, 353 colleges and universities have signed this commitment to deliver on the promise of the Paris Agreement, and UChicago is not among them. Instead, this Maroon article from 2019 notes, UChicago has chosen to move forward alone with initiatives like its 2016 Sustainability Plan, which, though it has enjoyed some successes—using local food in the dining halls, for example, and, as of April 2020, achieving an 11 percent reduction in carbon emissions from a composite baseline of emissions between 2012 and 2014—published no data until March of 2018 despite the University’s initial promise of annual updates. UChicago’s historic lack of data transparency with its students, while a separate issue from its dealings with other institutions, is also a refusal to collaborate. In 2018, for example, the Office of Sustainability asked the Environmental Research Group, a student-run research team, to conduct research into the ways individual action on campus could help increase campus energy efficiency, but never provided the data required to successfully complete this research.
The UChicago that this historic lack of collaboration and transparency has produced is an institution much more interested in the appearance of sustainable practices than in the type of true, lasting environmentalism that will create real change in the wake of the coronavirus. For example, the University’s Office of Sustainability has only one full-time employee, while peer institutions with such offices have a minimum of four full-time employees—clearly, our Office of Sustainability is not equipped to meet the demands of an institution the size of UChicago. And though the University’s 2016 commitment was to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent, using a composite of emissions from 2012 to 2014 as its baseline, by 2025, this commitment was measured in carbon intensity (kilograms of carbon dioxide per square foot) rather than net emissions. This creates a seemingly intentional misrepresentation of the University’s progress toward greater sustainability: the school could report a decrease in carbon intensity as new buildings increased the square footage of the campus, even as net emissions actually stayed constant or rose.
However, despite the seemingly superficial and misleading engagement with environmental practices that the University has demonstrated in the past, UChicago’s actions this year make me hopeful for a shift to a more collaborative model of sustainability in the aftermath of the coronavirus. The school’s seeming acknowledgment of the need for greater data transparency is one of the most encouraging changes: the Sustainability Plan was updated in December of 2019 and, in April 2020, the University stated that it had increased its goal to 50 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (pushed back from 2025) and would begin reporting data in terms of net emissions; these are commitments, though perhaps small ones, to greater data transparency. The administration also approved the Green Fund, slated to begin in autumn of 2020, a signal that, perhaps, the school is open to greater collaboration with its students. This fund, proposed in 2019 by the Chicago Environmental alliance, a coalition of environmental student groups on campus, will award $50,000 to student-led research and projects to improve campus sustainability. If UChicago is open to changing its historic stance on data transparency and collaboration with its student body, even in these small ways, there is reason to hope that the school will also embrace a shift to greater collaboration with other universities.”
Though some might argue this shift is not necessary, experts have stated how impactful our post-coronavirus environmental initiatives—capitalizing on quarantine-induced reductions in carbon emissions—could be, and the coronavirus pandemic itself has shown us that global collaboration is the most effective way to combat global problems. UChicago, so often a leader in research, could be a leader in the future of sustainability as well. This will only be possible, however, if the school applies to sustainability the same collaborative spirit essential to its other research. This could mean advising other universities on methods that have been successful in making our campus more sustainable and receiving new ideas from them in return, it could mean a network of universities that hold each other responsible for our carbon footprints, or it could mean University-supported conferences about environmental issues on college campuses. Whatever form this collaboration might take, it will help create more sustainable practices on each campus that is involved, and, thus, have a greater impact on global climate than any institution could have working alone.
The past year has shown that UChicago can make real commitments to more sustainable practices and that the administration realizes these practices are important, however much it might shy away from long-term and expensive environmental efforts. While it would be a radical departure from the past, UChicago has the potential to emerge from quarantine as a leader in environmental sustainability, prioritizing data transparency for the sake of other institutions as well as their own, and working with other institutions to make conscious, genuine commitments to the more sustainable future we all need. As a leading research university, UChicago has a duty to take initiative and change its historical approach to sustainability, for only through transparency and collaboration will we emerge from the pandemic with the potential for progress toward a greener world.
Elizabeth Winkler is a second-year in the College.
Correction on June 13, 2020, 5:30 p.m. CDT:
The article originally stated, incorrectly, that the University’s greenhouse gas emissions goal is measured by carbon intensity. It is in fact based on overall emissions—not emissions per square foot of building space. In addition, the University’s target year for emissions reduction is 2030, not 2050, and the baseline emissions used is an average from 2012-2014, not, 2012-2015. The article has been updated to reflect this.