SU Senate report calls on University to commit to achieving carbon neutrality by 2035

| Staff Reporter
White puffs of smoke emerge from a factory-like building into a blue sky framed by a few branches.

A smokestack on the Washington University campus spews smoke on a sunny afternoon. (Photo by Curran Neenan/Student Life)

Washington University’s Student Union Senate recommended in a report released this fall that the University commit to achieving full carbon neutrality by 2035.

The Carbon Neutrality Report 2021, co-sponsored by sophomore Senators Ishani Shethia and Danny Ecker, found that the University is on track to increase its carbon dioxide emissions in coming years, emitting 437,158 MT of CO2 annually by 2050. To achieve full carbon neutrality by 2035, the Senate called for investments in offsite renewable energy and investing in local programs that encourage clean energy use.

“A school like WashU, with so many resources, we felt, should really have a goal in place [for going carbon neutral] and a plan to meet that goal,” Shethia said. “We wanted to take charge as senators.” 

The report also recommended the continuation of some programs the University currently offers, such as GrowSolarSTL, a group purchasing program for homeowners seeking to invest in solar, as well as the adoption of new programs such as a “carbon tracker” to promote transparency with the student body.

The report recommends that “future expansion projects on campus should take into consideration these sustainability goals and energy efficiency.” Part of this entails having the University “commit to LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] Platinum certification for all new building projects across campus.” Currently, the University requires all new buildings to have a minimum LEED Silver certification for all new construction and major renovation.

“This is simply the first step in a long process in divesting from fossil fuels and establishing Washington University as a leading institution in protecting students’ futures and the planet,” the report concludes.

Part of the report looked at the goals and actions of peer institutions in achieving carbon neutrality. Notably, American University became the first research university to reach carbon neutrality in 2018. Nine other institutions were mentioned, from Duke University’s pledge to carbon neutrality by 2024 to Harvard University’s commitment to greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050. 

When asked why so many of the University’s peer institutions have carbon neutral goals but the University does not, Shethia said there is no clear answer. 

“In a lot of other areas concerning the environment, we are doing great,” Shethia said. “It’s just that, in this regard, we are a little behind.”

“At the bare minimum, we should be able to meet what other universities are doing,” Student Union President Ranen Miao said. “But it would be even better if we can be a leader in this field.”

Ecker added that although the University administrators have expressed enthusiasm about taking steps towards carbon neutrality, the steps to actually reach that goal will take considerable time and effort. 

“We have been talking with a number of administrators including the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Sustainability [Phil Valko] and [Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of Students] Rob Wild,” Ecker said. “They are obviously passionate about this issue. The main challenge is going to be following through with implementation in the next five, 10 and 15 years.”

“We have five meetings set up with people in the administration in the next couple of months, and the Office of Sustainability has already put together a plan on carbon neutrality,” Shethia said.

Assistant Vice Chancellor for Sustainability Phil Valko did not respond to two email requests from Student Life for comment on this story.

Both senators stressed the importance of gaining traction with the student body as SU moves forward with this issue. 

“As much as it will be important, at the end of the day, to get in contact with the administration as we have been doing and get them to implement [the policy], if there is student backing with us, that only helps,” Ecker said.

Read more about sustainability at Washington University:

Sustainability in the age of social distancing: WU’s Earth Day EcoChallenge

Sustainability groups, Dining Services launch new Greenware Program

WU awarded for student-driven sustainability efforts



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