UC Berkeley environmental impact decreases despite growing student population, campus report finds

Students relaxing on Memorial Glade
Yiran Chen/File

Related Posts

According to UC Berkeley’s recently released Supplemental Environmental Impact Report, or SEIR, the campus’ carbon emissions, waste generation and greenhouse gas, or GHG, emissions continue to decrease despite the projected 33.7 percent increase in student enrollment for the 2022-23 school year.

The campus released the SEIR for public review and comment in February to accompany the campus’ Long Range Development Plan, or LRDP, which is currently undergoing a “multi-year” update, according to communications director for UC Berkeley Capital Strategies Kyle Gibson. Gibson said in an email he anticipates that the UC Regents will officially adopt the SEIR in May.

Instead of waiting to release the completely updated LRDP and SEIR at the same time, Gibson said in an email that releasing the SEIR now will allow “priority projects” to commence in the meantime, including the development of additional student housing and academic space on the current Upper Hearst Parking Structure.

“UC Berkeley has urgently needed projects its nearly 15-year-old LRDP did not foresee — such as addressing our part of an unanticipated UC-wide enrollment surge in 2015,” Gibson said in an email. “Critical projects like student housing need to progress while the multi-year LRDP update process is taking place.”

According to the SEIR, there will be a significant increase in projections for student enrollment. The previous projected academic year student population in 2020 was 33,450 students, but the current 2017-18 student population significantly exceeds that figure at 40,955 students. Now, the estimated headcount for the 2022-23 school year is 44,735 students, a 33.7 percent increase since the projections for 2020.

To accommodate this large influx of students, the campus has proposed plans in the SEIR to build additional student housing and academic space for the Goldman School of Public Policy on the Upper Hearst Parking Structure in September.

“Critical projects like student housing need to progress while the multi-year LRDP update process is taking place,” Gibson said in an email.

According to the SEIR, despite growing student enrollment numbers, the campus’ environmental footprint seems to have decreased. According to the report, overall demand for water by the campus has decreased 21 percent from 2004 to 2016 despite an increase in campus population as well as new development during that time. Between the same time period, the campus’ solid waste generation decreased by nearly 33 percent.

Director of Sustainability at UC Berkeley’s Office of Sustainability Kira Stoll said in an email that when the campus released its 2005 LRDP, it also began to increase its sustainability efforts through campus-based initiatives like ReUSE and the Zero Waste Research Center. On a broader scale, the UC system aims to convert to 100 percent clean electricity by 2025 through the Carbon Neutrality Initiative.

“Students have played a key role in reducing our landfill waste and improving recycling, composting, reus(ing) and more,” Stoll said in an email.

Cal Zero Waste recently implemented its Zero Waste Building Program, through which recycling, composting and landfill bins are both available and standardized throughout buildings on campus. On its webpage, one can track which buildings have already been installed with standardized bins.

“There’s a whole lot that has contributed to the solid waste diversion,” former ASUC senator Connor Hughes said in an email. “Cal Zero Waste does really great work for the amount of funding and support they get.”

According to Hughes, there has been an increase in administrative support in the last couple of years for funding and managing sustainability projects with the addition of Vice Chancellor Marc Fisher, who Hughes said in an email has been a “great ally” in helping provide necessary support for Cal Zero Waste and the sustainability department.

According to the campus’ Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory, total GHG emissions have decreased by 36,922 metric tons between 2007 and 2016 – likely spurred by the campus’ commitment in 2007 to reducing its GHG emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2014. Stoll said in an email this goal kick-started hundreds of energy efficient projects including retrofitting lighting and adding one megawatt of solar electricity distributed among five rooftops on the main campus and one carport. According to the SEIR, the campus’ total GHG emissions in 2016 were five percent lower than they were in 1990.

Regarding transportation, 35 percent of Berkeley’s vehicle fleet is currently hybrid or alternative-fuel powered and, despite growing building space, the energy intensity per square foot has decreased by 15 percent since 1990. Stoll attributes these achievements to the campus’ continued enhancement of commute programs such as offering bus passes to faculty and students and improving bike paths and parking spaces.

“If you care about climate and you care about the environment, that’s just a big heap of good news,” campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof said in regard to the campus’ success in reducing emissions and waste.

Despite the report’s findings, some students speculate that the increase in enrollment may have implications on the environment. Hughes said in an email that this increasing enrollment rate may exacerbate the already “pretty severe” housing shortage and testing the limits of current infrastructure and waste management. Hughes said in an email that increasing student enrollment is not necessarily a negative thing, but the UC system needs to supplement this increase with an increase in funding.

It’d be great to accept and enroll as many students as possible into UC Berkeley,” Hughes said in an email. “We just have to make sure we are providing adequate resources and funding to make those experiences beneficial.”

Sabina Mahavni covers student life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sabina_mahavni.