November 22, 2016

Panelists Discuss The Future of Sustainability and Renewable Energy

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On Nov. 16, panelists hosted by Greeks Go Green gathered inside the corridors of Warren Hall, one of Cornell’s four LEED Platinum certified buildings, with the goal of discussing new paths for the development of 100 percent renewable energy.

As an effort to commemorate Week of Action for Renewable Energy, the panel was moderated by Bronte Payne, a clean energy associate at Environment America and included several members of the Cornell community such as Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology, Sarah Zemanick, director of the Campus Sustainability Office, Prof. Charles Greene, earth and atmospheric sciences.

The panel focused on the current work taking place across the world to deal with the implementation of renewable energy technologies and how this trend may develop in the near future.

The panel focused on three broad aspects: understanding our national commitment and advocacy for the development of renewable energy, the importance of coordinated activity between citizens and multinational organizations and analyzing some of the current issues afflicting the development of renewable energy. The moderator and the panelists highlighted efforts taking place at Cornell, putting into perspective how citizens are already moving from words to actions. For example, the moderator highlighted current bipartisan support for 100 percent renewable energy development, which is being aided by action pledges from US citizens (e.g. Aspen, CO) and corporations (e.g. Whole Foods, Johnson & Johnson, GE, Coca-Cola, etc.).

As panelists started to present their views and suggestions, Cornell’s ambition to become carbon neutral by 2035 was discussed by the panel. One of the first points, made by Howarth, was the increasing global temperature rates, exacerbated by the continuous release of greenhouses like carbon dioxide and methane.

“Last year [had] been the warmest year,” Howarth said. “[The planet] is warming quickly, warming more quickly than most climate models have indicated, and part of the reason for that is the development of the natural gas industry in the United States.”

One hundred times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, methane was the main source of his criticism against current techniques employed by natural gas industries, including fracking. According to Howarth, increases in the release of methane over the past decade are starting to have as great of an effect as carbon dioxide over previous decades.

This criticism was highlighted as playing a key role in creating the 2035 carbon neutrality plan being pursued by Cornell; Cornell, a producer of over 213,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, is currently a major consumer of natural gas and looking to transition to novel energy technologies, such as solar and geothermal.

The panelists gently weaved into the conversation how activism had arisen as a result of national attitudes taken by the federal government to gas emissions and renewable energy development. Greene highlighted the current national surge interest in renewable energy development as a result of the current stances of the incoming Trump administration.

Climate Justice Cornell – represented by Elizabeth Chi’18 – was born as a result of the United States’ rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions, in 2001. Taking a more proactive stance backed by a strong sense of activism was Colleen Boland ‘01, retired U.S. Air Force senior master sergeant and one of the founders of We Are Seneca Lake.

“My own activism in this area is inspired not only by what I learned here at Cornell as a student of human development but also by my previous career in the military … I saw firsthand how environmental calamity brings conflict and threatens security,” Boland said.

Besides dealing with global temperature increases and climate change, panelists also talked about the multiple downstream effects of renewable energy development. Among these are improvements in concerns surrounding food availability, the development of new technologies in other U.S. sectors (prominently the military) and the creation of new job growth opportunities across the United States.

Panelists discussed renewable energy development as a way to deal with public health concerns and food availability for a bigger global population. Greene’s work with algae and biomass fuel was accompanied by the discovery of algae biomass itself as a massive source of protein (ten times that of soy).

Chi highlighted the need for developed Western societies — the United States and Europe — to lead the way for developing societies into how to deal with the global effects of stagnating renewable energy development.

Boland — as a member of the armed forces — gave the military perspective drawing from a July 2015 report published by the US Department of Defense. In this report, the military highlighted the ongoing threat that unmitigated climate change would have on U.S. security, ranging from an increase in the number of refugees worldwide to the destabilization of states as a result of scarcities associated with food and water.

As the panel drew to a close, the overarching message that seemed to unite most panelists was the need for citizens to get involved as much as possible in the future.

The final sentiment of the audience was that only a combination of climate change literacy and engagement with a broad range of organizations can help usher a more active movement for renewable energy development.