Climate Action Plan Considers Various Dates to Reduce University’s Yearly 5,740 Tons of Carbon Emitted 

Students, faculty and members of the community partake in discussions at a summit on the University's Climate Action Plan. Photo Credit: Erin Hurley // The Trail

By: Erin Hurley 

On Jan. 24, students, faculty, and local business leaders gathered in the Rasmussen Rotunda for a potentially pivotal moment in University’s history: the inaugural climate summit. The summit aimed to educate and update the community on current Climate Action Plan (CAP) progress and provide a forum for other campus environmental concerns.

  Lexi Brewer, the Director of Sustainability, presented a comprehensive background of events and discussions that led to the summit. A primary goal was to present findings from over a year of behind-the-scenes technical work that aimed to “investigate how to decarbonize the campus infrastructure,” Brewer explained. Rather than purchasing carbon offsets to lessen the University’s footprint, the CAP aims to replace existing infrastructure. This initial plan addresses Scope 1 and Scope 2 Emissions – emissions from the direct combustion of fossil fuels (i.e., heating buildings, cooking food, and even lawn mowing) and emissions associated with purchased power. Scope 3 emissions – all other emissions, including those of travel, purchased goods, food waste, and other behavioral changes – are not addressed in the CAP, as they are extremely difficult to measure. 

  Brewer says that the University must set a good example. “Before we ask for behavior change or things that feel like sacrifices that are in those Scope 3 emissions, we need to have a plan to walk the talk and to lead by example.”

  The process is intended to be collaborative between faculty, students, and members of the Tacoma community. The Stakeholder Group, which has representatives from the student body, various educational departments, and other faculty, has been essential in contributing to the CAP. Space is available in The Stakeholder Group, and Brewer invites any students interested in the collaborative process. Additional survey responses gathered in September 2023 identified other concerns with decarbonization strategies, such as fair representation for all parties, maintenance of accessible paths, noise pollution, costs reflected in tuition, and the complete divestment from fossil fuels. 

  Total electrification is the driving force of the CAP. Tacoma Public Utilities is Puget Sound’s utility provider, and 95% of its electricity comes from hydropower, a clean source. While hydropower is non-pollutant and sustainable, it is essential to note that the damming of water is detrimental to river ecosystems, though this point is not factored into the categorization of “clean” energy. If campus buildings can be electrified, they can be a part of the “clean electric grid.” However, the cost of electrification is considerable, and COVID and supply-chain issues caused construction costs to balloon. Hot water electrification for all buildings is a 5-to-9-million-dollar investment, and space heating electrification could cost anywhere from 100 to 185 million dollars. 

  Representatives from McKinstry, an environmental consulting firm spearheading this project, spoke at the summit and presented detailed graphics depicting the decarbonization of campus building-by-building. This process involves replacing current systems with carbon-neutral options, such as electric or geothermal. Currently, gas comprises 56% of the school’s energy usage while electricity comprises 44%. However, gas is responsible for 96% of carbon emissions, while electricity is responsible for only 4%. The CAP aims to neutralize this disparity.

  The University is considering multiple viable options to reach carbon neutrality by 2035 or 2040, each with varied price points and annual carbon savings. Brewer describes the importance of being “brutally realistic about the numbers and investments attached to those dates.” Often, dates are arbitrarily chosen without the knowledge of cost, and Brewer aims to minimize this discrepancy. University decision-makers may be presented with jaw-dropping numbers, but they will be accurate and honest. The graphic presents each building associated with the year it should be renovated to achieve carbon neutrality by the target date as a potential roadmap. Many factors are considered in these breakdowns. For example, systems in Anderson-Langdon (A/L) take much longer to replace than systems in the Greek houses, but A/L infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life and is due for replacement. This instance places A/L renovations occurring as soon as 2024 (pending CAP approval), while Greek house renovation will occur further down the line. In order to hit these target dates established by the current CAP, construction would have to begin this summer after Board of Trustees approval.  These plans are costly and students worry this expense will be reflected in tuition 

  Members of the City of Tacoma’s Climate Action Plan team in attendance gave a detailed overview of the city’s carbon neutrality goals. Many of them are aspirational, such as 100% of new builds reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. The list of ambitions is comprehensive and includes plans to expand bike lane infrastructure, community trails, and electric vehicle accessibility while addressing equity and environmental justice concerns for all people. Presenters ended on a crucial note, highlighting the importance of voting in local elections and electing city councilors who value climate progress. City representatives noted that previous council members did not view climate-related issues as a priority. Current members are stepping up to the challenge by setting reasonable goals but also acknowledging failures. 

  Once the speakers concluded, attendees had the opportunity to visit with Brewer and the speakers to discuss geothermal energy and other initiatives on campus and in Tacoma. Two questions posed by Sustainability Services on poster boards, prompted attendees to engage with what they had learned. The first questioned, “What are ways we can engage campus community in climate action?” One student pointedly responded, “Where is university admin? Can they be visibly involved in this process?”

  The second poster asked, “What are some sustainability efforts you would like to see us take on?” Answers included “less waste in the dining hall and catering,” “GRASS EVERYWHERE,” “lights on 24/7 in buildings not being used (like Seward last year),” and “student transportation.” While many of these concerns are technically considered Scope 3 emissions, Brewer made it clear she wishes to be a resource to students on campus who are concerned about sustainability. “If I can help you make that happen, let’s talk about it!” she said. Brewer hopes events like this and general advertising will prompt students to reach out with questions, suggestions, and complaints; she wants students included in the solutions.

  The Climate Summit is part of a much larger conversation on campus regarding sustainability. Students separate from Sustainability Services are interested and eager to participate and advocate for the environment. These students are independently rallying and organizing, and there is discussion of a letter from these students that the Board of Trustees approve the CAP. 

  Brewer notes that the next step on this road is incorporating feedback received at the summit and further investigating the various timelines for decarbonization. This information will be communicated with The Stakeholder Group and the campus community. The findings will be presented for approval and adoption by the Board of Trustees.