September 14, 2014

Working Group Outlines Goals for Accelerating Cornell’s Climate Neutrality Date

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By AIMEE CHO

The Climate Neutrality Acceleration Working Group presented a series of recommendations to the Faculty Senate Wednesday to help enable the University accelerate its target date for achieving climate neutrality from 2050 to 2035.

President David Skorton originally committed to getting the University to cut its net carbon emissions to zero by 2050 when he signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2007.

However, according to Prof. Todd Cowen, civil and environmental engineering, the University needs to accelerate that goal to lead the word in achieving carbon neutrality sooner.

“Cornell, as the land grant university to the world … has the obligation to demonstrate that not only is the goal achievable in an aggressive time frame, but it can be done so while delivering on its educational and research mission [and] maintaining core financial health,” said Cowen, one of the members of the Climate Neutrality Acceleration Working Group (AWG).

The working group identified several priorities in the University’s current Climate Action Plan to accelerate the climate neutrality goal, according to Prof. Brian Chabot, ecology and evolutionary biology.

“We propose[d] introducing carbon offset purchases and an internal carbon tax sooner than the 2050 plan,” he said. “The main actions needed are to reduce energy demand on campus and to convert to non-fossil energy sources.”

Chabot, who is also a member of the AWG,  added that the University can cut its energy demand by reducing energy used in operations, building more energy-efficient buildings and improving the efficiency of older buildings.

The University has already begun working towards converting to non-fossil energy sources — Cornell’s solar array at the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport started generating electricity Thursday, according to Chabot.

“Next steps on moving away from fossil carbon energy include getting involved in wind projects, developing geothermal and developing local biofuels,” he said.

The University has lowered its greenhouse gas emissions by about 32 percent since 2008 and 50 percent since 1990, according to Cowen.

“Cornell and its incredibly forward thinking Facilities Services group has done a lot already,” Cowen said. “Examples include large facility projects such as the Lake Source Cooling facility, the Co-generation Plant … [and] retrofit efficiency projects to reduce the energy use of many existing buildings.”

According to Chabot, it is important for the world to reduce its output of climate active gasses “soon and in significant ways.”

“The reason for Cornell to do so is to help lead the way. To be a legitimate advocate for others taking needed steps, we must do so,” he said. “Additionally, we will gain control over our energy supplies and very possibly reduce the costs of energy over the long term.”

Cowen described Cornell’s Ithaca campus as a “demonstration scale community,” which can potentially reach the 2035 goal of carbon neutrality.

“Climate change is here, now. We will all have to think and operate differently,” Cowen said. “If we can act aggressively now and lead New York and the nation in finding solutions, I remain optimistic that the future may be bright without being dangerously hot.”

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