Doesn’t UC already have a plan for carbon neutrality?

The 2013 Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI) launched by former UC President Janet Napolitano calls for UC campuses to be carbon-neutral for Scope 1 and 2 emissions (on-campus emissions + purchased energy) by 2025, and Scope 3 emissions (off-campus, such as air travel) by 2050. Campuses are now actively working to meet the CNI goal. However, none are likely to meet it, and it has become increasingly clear that the only way UC will reach carbon neutrality is through purchase of large amounts of offsets. The UC Office of the President (UCOP) does not have any plan to reduce use of offsets.

What is the problem with carbon offsets?

Buying carbon offsets will not reduce emissions and raises questions about whether such offsets are 1) permanent, 2) verifiable, and 3) additive (i.e., would not have occurred otherwise). Offsets also do not scale, since finding good-quality offsets is very difficult. UCOP has not yet been able to identify nearly enough for the 10 campuses. Thousands of other companies and institutions are also planning to promote themselves as carbon-neutral by buying offsets, so this strategy really will not work. An excellent op-ed in the Sacramento Bee by two UCSD professors explains this further and is available here.

If offsets won’t help, how can an institution get to fossil-fuel-free status?

The basic strategy is to electrify everything. Heating and cooling plants can use renewably generated electricity to operate heat pumps or resistance heaters. Vehicles can use batteries or renewably generated hydrogen. Exceptions could be made for specialized lab equipment or other niche uses. Stanford has already electrified its heating system, cutting its GHG emissions 68% while lowering operating costs by $425 million over 35 years.

What are other UCs doing?

The UCSF Academic Senate is sponsoring a roundtable in November 2021 on strategies for electrifying its campus. The UCSD Chancellor has allocated $250,000 to study electrification options for that campus. UC Berkeley faculty are pushing to replace that campus’s old heating plant with an electrified system. Faculty representing all campuses have met with UC Academic Senate leadership and UCOP staff to push for a Fossil Free UC. But President Drake has so far refused to meet with the group or to commit to endorsing a fossil-free goal.

What has UCD done to date to reduce GHG emissions?

The university is pursuing energy efficiency in buildings and labs, installed 16MW of photovoltaics south of I-80 in 2016 (enough for about 11% of campus needs), is building the West Village residential district which produces around 80% of its own energy, and is engaged in the Big Shift to switch from steam to hot water heating and cooling pipes across campus, setting the stage for electrification of those systems. It is also purchasing much lower-emission electricity from off-campus than a few years ago. However, UCD still produces over 150,000 metric tons of CO2 annually on-campus, primarily from burning methane for heating and cooling, a level that has not changed significantly since 2008. There is no official commitment to ending these emissions.

The campus’ webpage on its GHG reduction efforts is at https://sustainability.ucdavis.edu/goals/climate. This page includes the graphics below. As of 2019 total UCD emissions were below 2000 levels and approaching 1990 levels. This progress is great, but results mainly from improving on-campus efficiency and purchasing greener electricity (the latter shown by the Clean Electricity graphics). Heating and cooling emissions from burning methane remain high at both Davis and Sacramento campuses, and account for 69% of total UCD emissions. (Note: This chart looks a bit different from the graphic on the Background page because it combines Scope 1 & 2 emissions. The latter is just on-campus (Scope 1) emissions.

Couldn’t natural gas in campus heating/cooling plants be replaced with biogas?

Options for replacing natural gas at UC were studied in 2018 by a team of UC scientists sponsored by the TomKat Foundation. The team found that biogas (methane generated from anaerobic decomposition of biological materials such as agricultural waste) could in fact play a role in replacing methane at UC, but is unlikely to be a scalable solution beyond UC. Current biogas resources could only replace 1.5% of U.S. natural gas consumption, and expansion of biogas supplies is likely to run into environmental problems. Thus if UC wants to pioneer a fossil-free path for society, biogas is unlikely to be part of the solution.

How much will getting to fossil-free cost?

The short answer is, we don’t know. There definitely will need to be up-front investments in energy efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy. The UCs have been making many such investments for years, and these often have paybacks in terms of reduced operating costs. Beyond this, existing fossil fuel-powered heating and cooling plants will need to be written off before the end of their operating lifetimes, in favor of electric-powered plants run with renewably produced electricity. This will require investment, but long-term energy savings will probably accrue, particularly if fossil fuel costs rise. There may also be benefits to the university in terms of research opportunities, student learning, and good public relations. Quantifying and budgeting for costs of electrification urgently needs to be done.

Is UCD staff exploring the fossil-free option?

In addition to the UC-wide TomKat report mentioned earlier, some exploratory work has already been done both at Davis and Sacramento campuses. UCD staff has a modeling tool to analyze solutions, and it has produced the following graphic on the UCD GHG reduction web page:

Details on these potential strategies are not publicly available, but this graphic tells us that ways to end UCD’s GHG emissions are being investigated and prioritized. What is lacking at this point is high-level commitment to making UCD fossil-free.