‘Cross-border’ collaboration: Higher education leaders talk climate change solutions

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Higher education leaders, including UC President Janet Napolitano, discussed research universities’ role in tackling climate change challenges at “A Conversation with Members of the University Climate Change Coalition” on Monday.

Hosted in Washington, D.C. by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, the event featured a panel consisting of Napolitano, State University of New York, or SUNY, Chancellor Kristina Johnson and Timothy Carter, the president of Second Nature — an organization that connects institutions of higher education to increase sustainability. Both SUNY and the UC are part of the University Climate Change Coalition, or UC3, a network of 13 research universities across Canada, the United States and Mexico.

UC3 came together to share the different ways the institutions have approached the issue of climate change at their respective campuses and localities. Research universities bring together varying levels of knowledge, expertise and campuswide initiatives on climate change, according to Napolitano.

“The United States is made up of a lot of ingredients; it’s made up of cities, of states, of businesses, of universities — particularly research universities,” Napolitano said at the event. “How can those elements work together, prompted perhaps by our universities, to get our country to where we would have been if we had stayed in the Paris (climate) accords?”

One such example of “crossing that intersegmental bridge” is the collaboration between the city of Los Angeles and UCLA, according to Napolitano. The campus is helping the city reach its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, with the hopes of accomplishing it before the deadline.

SUNY has two major goals for addressing climate change: completely switching to renewable energy sources and constructing all new buildings to be zero net energy, according to Johnson. Napolitano stated that the UC plans to become carbon neutral by 2025.

“In terms of renewable energy … we made the largest purchase of two solar farms of any university in the country,” Napolitano said at the event. “They will generate 80 megawatts — about 15 percent of our usage of energy.”

One of the challenges UC3 faces is scalability, or expanding climate action initiatives on the university level across different cities and states, taking into consideration cost and efficiency. Carter proposed that because universities are “kind of like a city anyway,” using university-developed research to come up with and test different climate actions on campus can help influence other localities to participate as well.

At the event, Johnson emphasized the importance of federal action — specifically legislative action — in reaching climate change goals. She attributed SUNY’s increase of solar energy by a factor of 20 to “very good policy.”

“As we continue to build this out and learn actions that can be taken, I think the federal level’s an interesting place where the international cohort of higher ed institutions can really help inform the U.S. cohort and vice versa,” Carter added. “That’s a clear cross-border dynamic where we’ll continue to learn from each other.”

Contact Alyssa Bernardino at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alybernardino.