Faculty, staff and students at UC Davis announced a petition and an educational campaign this week urging the university to commit to ending its use of fossil fuels by 2030. The campaign launch coincided with the United Nations-sponsored COP26 climate conference, which convened world leaders in Glasgow this week to discuss action on climate change.
The Fossil-Free UCD campaign emphasized that addressing climate change is of existential importance. “Global heating jeopardizes the university’s core missions of education, research, and service to local and global communities, and should be a cause for rapid action,” reads the group’s petition, which is addressed to UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May, UC Davis Health CEO Davis Lubarsky, and other top administrators.
On many fronts, UC Davis is already a leader on sustainability. For the past four years, the campus has been ranked the most sustainable university in the United States, and among the top 10 most sustainable in the world, in the University of Indonesia’s GreenMetric World University Rankings, which evaluated nearly a thousand universities worldwide.
UC Davis’ efforts to promote sustainability involve the campus’ academics, research, operations, and engagement with the surrounding community. The campus is in the middle of a $56 million project called The Big Shift, which involves converting building heating systems so that they use hot water generated by electricity — a renewable resource — instead of steam heat generated by natural gas. Furthermore, the UC system has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2025.
Campus activists commended UC Davis for its sustainability efforts while urging the university to do more. “The Big Shift is just one step in the right direction,” campus activists said in a recent message to Chancellor May. “Other steps need to be identified ASAP.”
The Fossil-Free UCD campaign is asking that UC Davis establish a timetable for implementing changes and adopt specific policies by the end of 2022. Central to those changes should be a wider shift from the use fossil fuels to electricity for campus operations, the activists said.
They are urging the university to move from its carbon neutral, or “net zero” objective, to not using fossil fuels at all. The UC system’s commitment to reaching carbon neutrality relies on purchasing “carbon offsets,” a strategy that climate activists say is outdated.
“[Carbon offsets] are schemes to which institutions and individuals contribute, to try to ‘make good’ on their own greenhouse gas emissions: for example, UC continues to burn methane while paying for forest preservation somewhere else,” a group called Electrify UC explains in an informational document. “It means paying people elsewhere (generally in low-income countries) to reduce their emissions while we go about business-as-usual.”
According to data provided by Fossil-Free UCD, annual on-campus emissions from UC Davis have remained steady since 2008 at around 150,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. “The UC Office of the President has so far been unable to identify nearly enough offsets for UC campuses,” Fossil-Free UCD said in its press release. “Activists ask that campuses instead end fossil fuel use and commit to electrifying operations.”
The group highlighted Stanford University as a model to follow for campus electrification. According to the university, the Stanford Energy System Innovations project has reduced the campus’ greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 70% and its potable water use by almost 20% while cutting heating and cooling costs.
“If UC Davis wants to do right by the communities we serve, we should lead by example and electrify our campus instead of burning fossil fuels that worsen our climate emergency,” said UC Davis professor Mark Huising, who teaches in the departments of neurobiology and physiology.
As of Friday, 570 people had signed Fossil-Free UCD’s petition asking the university to end its use of fossil fuels by 2030. “We realize that moving beyond fossil fuels to sustain our critical teaching and research missions is going to require massive commitment,” the petition states. “However, as a top undergraduate and research campus, part of a renowned university system that is unique in the world, we have an obligation to live up to our sustainability aspirations. If we cannot do this, who will?”
— Reach Caleb Hampton at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @calebmhampton.