Pictured above is the Snyder Road Solar Farm, Cornell’s first large-scale solar initiative. This is one step in Cornell’s plans for a low carbon future.

Ryan Landvater / Sun File Photo

Pictured above is the Snyder Road Solar Farm, Cornell’s first large-scale solar initiative. This is one step in Cornell’s plans for a low carbon future.

February 2, 2016

2035 Carbon Neutrality Goal Not A Priority for Cornell, Garrett Says

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Although the Climate Action Plan report released by President Emeritus David J. Skorton last year stated that Cornell would achieve carbon neutrality by 2035, President Elizabeth Garrett said in an October interview with The Sun that she does not support this initiative.

“For me, the more important thing is the research and creative work and education that goes on and not thinking about some arbitrary year date that we really haven’t studied with respect with how feasible it is for us to reach that,” Garrett said.

The first version of the Climate Action Plan was released in September 2009, announcing a 2050 goal for campus carbon neutrality. However, Skorton moved the goal date to 2035 after a 2013 Faculty Senate resolution urged the University to accelerate its plans.

Skorton pledged to transform Cornell into a carbon neutral campus by 2035 as a way of addressing climate change. The Climate Action Plan report consisted of 16 specific recommendations and prioritized six “key milestones” to help achieve this goal.

Accomplishing this goal would make Cornell a leader in sustainability practices and help the campus become more environmentally conscious, according to the University.

However, the University never officially adopted this goal, according to Garrett. She said she believes the University’s priorities lie elsewhere.

“What we ought to focus on is: how do we produce the best research that can change the world? How do we demonstrate it here and show the scalability and how do we train the next generation in a way that will be sensitive and proactive on those issues,” Garrett said.

Garrett added that although this approach may lead the campus to become carbon neutral, it will, more importantly, “lead to results throughout the world that I think would have a greater impact on climate in the long run.”

However, several faculty members disagree with Garrett’s plan to step away from the Climate Action Plan, maintaining that its implementation is a key part of the University’s mission.

Prof. Stephen Ellner, ecology and evolutionary biology, said he believes Garrett should be leading the charge toward reducing climate change, and not hindering the effort.

“It is the responsibility of universities in general, and Cornell in particular, to take a leadership role in alerting society to knowledge-based issues,” Ellner said, quoting the 2013 Faculty Senate Resolution.

“We already know that rapid, drastic reductions in carbon emissions are essential to avoid massive disruptions from climate change,” he said.

Although it was never formally adopted, the University has already taken some of the plan’s recommended steps, according to Prof. Brian Cabot, ecology and evolutionary biology.

“There is a significant number of faculty, staff and students who understand the need to reduce Cornell’s climate impact,” he said. “Despite President Garrett’s retreat from the Skorton commitment, we are continuing to work without pause.”

17 thoughts on “2035 Carbon Neutrality Goal Not A Priority for Cornell, Garrett Says

  1. I agree with President Garrett. The issue is GLOBAL warming after all. A world class university like Cornell should be working on solving the bigger issue, not only local to Ithaca. As she said, the Ithaca campus can and should be a demonstration site.

    • Um. . . that’s the whole point. What happens in Ithaca with regard to emissions, doesn’t stay in Ithaca. Cornell’s emissions don’t just affect Ithaca. In reality, the carbon neutrality goal has nothing to do with Ithaca, but falls as a significant piece of the bigger Global picture. Change only happens in increments, and right now Cornell, with a significant amount of global influence has the opportunity to play a leading role in that larger picture.

      • In my experience, solutions developed for local conditions often do not scale globally. If you want to solve a global problem, you need to understand the issues from a global perspective and develop solutions you think will work globally. Then prioritize based on what will have the biggest bang for the buck. Then pick proof of concept sites – of which Ithaca could/should be one – to demonstrate feasibility. Then develop plans that are economically and politically doable to scale rapidly. This is key because uneconomical solutions will not scale rapidly. I didn’t take President Garrett’s statements to mean Cornell should stop reducing its carbon footprint – if she meant stop doing anything local, I would disagree with that. There are cost effective solutions that can and should be implemented now – no need to wait on those, and new solutions should be tested too. That said, I thought it was a valuable refocusing on the bigger picture.

        • Your reply is typical of the “do nothing” community. The 2035 goal is ambitious and gives the research community a clear objective to develop solutions for Cornell and other communities. No research project starts off “global” – thats a recipe for disaster. You need incremental development on a smaller scale to try out solutions that are less costly and have minimal side effects. No drug is tested “globally” unless it goes through several, progressively larger trials. Stop being obstructionist. Or just get out of the way.

          • Au Contraire. It’s about having a strategy that will win the war. Also you misread my post – the approach is to think big, start small and scale fast. AKA Ready, AIM, Fire.

  2. Why is this being posed as an “either-or” deal? Either we do good research or we commit to a zero carbon emission campus by 2035?? Why can’t be do both?

  3. How is creative thinking and research not a part of the process that would lead to the accomplishment of the 2035 carbon neutral goal? If she does abrogate the initiative, she should perhaps give a more reasoned argument/logic explaining her decision.

    • I agree, I do not understand how the two are mutually exclusive. If you can send this paragraph or any other thoughts you have on the issue to Bruce Monger bcm3@cornell.edu, that would be a huge help. We are gathering letters to President Garrett responding to her decision. She needs to hear students’ voices and know we see and are responding to her decision. Every voice and opinion should be heard! Thank you!

  4. I agree that this argument presents the fallacy that good research and ACTUAL change cannot occur simultaneously at a world leading university. If we can’t solve this issue on this campus, what hope are we leaving for the world stage (which President Garrett plans to positively affect) and our generation that we can reverse this trend?

    • I think this is an important point. If you can send this paragraph or any other thoughts you have on the issue to Bruce Monger bcm3@cornell.edu, it would be so appreciated. We are gathering letters to President Garrett responding to her decision. She needs to hear students’ voices and know we see and are responding to her decision. Every voice and opinion should be heard! Thank you!

  5. So does this mean we’re going to be just another ‘publish or perish’ university? I don’t believe that research and climate change prevention are incompatible, and to be frank, one will leave us with a planet and the other will leave us with paper. President Garrett, I believe you should pause before dropping a commitment of a previous president.

    • I agree, I do not understand how we should reverse a decision that is already in place. If you can send this paragraph or any other thoughts you have on the issue to Bruce Monger bcm3@cornell.edu, that would be a huge help. We are gathering letters to President Garrett responding to her decision. She needs to hear students’ voices and know we see and are responding to her decision. Every voice and opinion should be heard! Thank you!

  6. I agree, I do not understand how we should reverse a decision that is already in place. If you can send this paragraph or any other thoughts you have on the issue to Bruce Monger bcm3@cornell.edu, that would be a huge help. We are gathering letters to President Garrett responding to her decision. She needs to hear students’ voices and know we see and are responding to her decision. Every voice and opinion should be heard! Thank you!

  7. Technology produced from research can only go so far to mitigate the effects of climate change or to reduce emissions. Emissions must be cut dramatically at the source for any of it to matter. As a research institution whose scientific community knows the numbers and takes the warnings seriously, it would be shameful for President Garrett to hold Cornell back from its global duty to step up to the plate on the most critical problem facing humankind.

  8. I offer condolences for Elizabeth Garrett’s untimely death, but among the news stories, I cannot help but be shocked that she recently deprioritized Carbon Neutrality from Cornell’s goals. I must hope that among the concerns that a new president will bring forward for Cornell, that revisiting this issue will be among them.

    Carbon Neutrality as a goal for Cornell is truly important, not just for the local environment, but as a focus of attention for Cornell’s Engineering and public-policy-related students and faculty. By taking on this eminently solvable problem on their own home base, students and faculty will be able to learn how its done and take their experience out to the wider world where they’re headed upon graduation. As an alumni of both Cornell and Stanford, I’ve seen both Universities use their centralized environmental facilities as both a focus of efficient operation of the campus and a platform for innovation. Demonstrating the highest priority of climate change to students, faculty and alumni alike is an irreplaceable experience to add to Cornell and to demonstrate how important climate change is now and in the future. Cornell should absolutely be walking the walk to enhance how they will incorporate climate change factors into all decisions.

    I’ve worked with Professor Johannes Lehmann, who is truly the leading researcher on agricultural biochar, which is the only provably effective way to extract carbon from the atmosphere at globally significant scale and put it to valuable economic use. As an engineer accustomed to working with semiconductor technology, it’s been a challenge to scale up from picoAcres to climate scale, and nothing save biochar can be scaled up to the level needed to counter the trainloads of carbon being dug up and inserted into the atmosphere. Nothing but agriculture operates at meaningful scale to reduce atmospheric carbon. As we are now blowing past 400ppm http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/ at a truly dangerous rate, the civilized world needs to achieve carbon neutrality and to actually being carbon levels back down to the 350ppm level. The Mauna Loa trends graph above shows the awsome power of agriculture: it pumps 6-7ppm per year out of the atmosphere, and biochar can harness that power, bringing half of waste agricultural carbon back into alarmingly degrading soil, and thereby improving soil for years to come. Cornell already has a unique resource in Prof. Lehmann on this issue, and he’s well-deserving of the extra attention that a Carbon Neutrality goal for Cornell can bring to the table. Indeed, with biochar in the mix, Cornell could be the first University to go past Carbon Neutrality and actually become meaningfully Carbon Negative. It would be an awesome statement for Cornell to be able to say that with Carbon Negativity, we balance not just the carbon that we’re emitting now, but actually begin reversing carbon emissions all the way back to the founding of the University 150 years ago.

  9. I agree with Craig above – I was reading about her untimely death and was saddened to learn that she was gutting Cornell’s climate neutrality goal, let’s hope the next president remains committed to President Skorton’s pledge. We can’t just wait for everyone else to become carbon neutral because it’s a “global problem” – we are part of the global community and need to demonstrate that it’s possible and even large, complicated institutions like Cornell can survive and thrive. Turning our back and saying its not in our mission is a cop-out and shameful.

    • Agree. The untimely and sad death of President Garrett should not hinder the effort to over turn her decree. I suspect that her mid-western background, where climate skeptics prevail, probably had a lot to do with her position on the issue. Seems like she didn’t learn much living in California.

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