The state of Ohio lags behind in sustainability and carbon neutrality

In 2015, Ohio State University adopted a new set of sustainability goals aimed, among other things, at better managing its resources.

The targets, both specific and ambitious, built on an earlier 2008 pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and the first climate action plan published in 2011.

“Global climate change poses a clear threat to communities around the world,” former Ohio State President Michael V. Drake said in 2020 as the university reaffirmed its goals and path to carbon neutrality.

“Ohio State is committed to taking actions that advance scientific knowledge and social understanding, and to model operational techniques that will propel new solutions to climate change,” he said.

Nearly ten years later, these goals are still far from being achieved.

“We have not been as aggressively successful as we had hoped,” Jay Kasey, OSU senior vice president of administration and planning, told OSU administrators during a Master Planning & Facilities committee last November.

Kasey briefed the trustees on six of the eight targets, all of which were below target. At the time, he said five of the six goals were in the “yellow” category, meaning OSU made progress from last year but didn’t quite reach the goal. One goal fell into the ‘red’ category, indicating no progress has been made.

The resource management objectives include:

  • Achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 under the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitment;
  • Increasing the university’s energy efficiency by 25% per square meter of building by 2025;
  • Reduce drinking water consumption by 10% per capita every five years (reset every five years);
  • Increase the Ecosystem Services Index score to 85% by 2025;
  • Reduce the university fleet’s carbon footprint per thousand kilometers traveled by 25% by 2025;
  • Achieve Zero Waste by 2025 by diverting 90% of waste from landfills.

Two goals not discussed included plans to increase the production and purchase of locally and sustainably produced food to 40% by 2025, and to develop university-wide standards for targeted, environmentally friendly products and to fully adopt preferred products and services by 2025 to implement.

Ohio State says sustainability goals are “aspirational in nature.”

Kasey pointed to reasonable progress on five of the goals, such as improving green space on campus and adding five new electric vehicle charging stations.

Although the university has made meaningful progress on nearly all of its sustainability goals since 2015, Kasey said in November that she will have to reevaluate where to go after the goals expire next year. He told trustees he would provide them with an update at the May board meeting.

Kasey was not available to speak with The Dispatch to discuss what the updated future of the state of Ohio’s sustainability goals might look like.

University spokesman Ben Johnson said most of Ohio State’s current goals are “aspirational in nature.”

“While some efforts fell short of these lofty goals, it is also true that the university has made tangible sustainability improvements,” Johnson said. “Ohio State continues to work toward a more sustainable campus and will consider future goals and objectives.”

Can a university really be climate neutral?

The university has made efforts to reduce energy consumption, increase green spaces, reduce waste and reduce its environmental footprint.

Since 2015, Ohio State has planted more than 3,000 trees, reduced energy use per square foot by 12.7% and increased the amount of waste diverted from landfills to 41%. One of Ohio State’s most ambitious goals is to reduce its carbon footprint by 31%.

Experts say some progress is better than no progress. But with Ohio State so far away from its goals, it begs the question: Can a university really achieve carbon neutrality?

The answer is yes, experts say, but it can get a little complicated.

Alex Barron, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at Smith College in Massachusetts, said that between 2007 and 2008, a wave of higher education institutions signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, pledging “to achieve carbon neutrality as quickly as possible.” reaches”. if possible.”

The state of Ohio signed this in 2008. Since then, more than 800 U.S. colleges and universities have signed the commitment, which recognizes that climate impacts will only worsen as long as more greenhouse gas emissions enter the atmosphere instead of leaving it.

Schools report their progress to Second Nature, a Boston-based sustainability nonprofit that monitors the president’s Climate Commitment. But Barron said more accountability is needed to ensure institutions achieve their goals.

“For schools to be held accountable, someone has to pay attention and ask questions,” Barron said, whether that’s students, teachers, administrators or community members.

“It’s work to achieve our climate goals,” he added. “It takes continued dedication and discipline.”

According to Second Nature, 11 universities and colleges in the United States had achieved carbon neutrality as of 2021: Allegheny College, American University, Bates College, Bowdoin College, Colby College, Colgate University, Colorado College, Dickinson University, Green Mountain College, Middlebury College and the University from San Francisco.

Many schools are moving toward carbon neutrality, but they’re not doing so by actually reducing emissions on campus, said Timothy Gutowski, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Instead, Gutowski said some schools are relying on purchasing carbon credits — where an entity pays a company to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — to get the job done.

“While it’s certainly well-intentioned, the question is whether you’re getting the amount of carbon you’re buying,” he said. “It calls into question its effectiveness.”

Barron agreed.

“We cannot move toward carbon neutrality if we just pay others,” he said. “People need to have a plan to deal with their own emissions.”

What can universities do to set more sustainable goals?

Gutowski said he commended Ohio State for its honesty in its progress toward sustainability goals.

“It’s a learning experience,” he said. “It’s not as easy as people want to say.”

As the university evaluates next steps, Gutowski said it’s better to be realistic than ambitious. He said he deals with this regularly with his students as they struggle with their own sustainability goals.

“I’m always on the side of realism,” Gutowski said.

Barron said that while carbon neutrality is a meaningful goal, it is important that university leaders have a “right sequence of action.” That starts with addressing your campus’s own greenhouse gas emissions before looking at carbon offsets.

“Colleges will not achieve their goals without planning, real commitment and funding,” Barron said.

Sheridan Hendrix is ​​a higher education reporter for The Columbus Dispatch. Sign up here for Extra Credit, her education newsletter.

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