Three steps for a lower carbon UC Berkeley

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Nishali Naik/Staff

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Since its founding, UC Berkeley’s mission has been to “contribute even more than California’s gold to the glory and happiness of advancing generations.” For those who have felt the sting of wildfire smoke in our eyes and lungs over the past three autumns or have family and friends who have been displaced by these or other disasters, it is evident that the climate crisis is not only a threat to fulfilling this mission for advancing generations — it is directly impacting the generation that’s here right now. UC Berkeley’s strategic plan for decarbonizing is, on the whole, making encouraging​ progress​, but it contains a glaring flaw that we as a community have an urgent imperative to fix. 

The 2025 Carbon Neutrality Planning Framework divides emissions into three categories. Scope one encompasses direct emissions on campus. Scope two contains emissions from purchased energy. Scope three includes emissions from commutes and business air travel. Scopes one and two have a target net-zero date of 2025 — an ambitious but achievable goal toward which good progress is being made. On the other hand, scope three emissions have a target net-zero date of 2050. This is, quite simply, not good enough given the magnitude of the current crisis. 

One area in particular that stands out is the immense carbon footprint associated with flying around the world as a part of academic activity. Research has found that flying around the world for conferences, collaborations and fieldwork can triple individual academics’ carbon footprints. A report from UC Santa Barbara estimated that one-third of the campus’s emissions were a result of work-related air travel by faculty and staff. For UC Berkeley, in 2018, this stood at 23,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, a number that has continued to rise over the past 30 years. Given the ​proliferation of scientific conferences​ and meetings, this number seems fated to rise in the absence of corrective action.

Digging deeper, it is easy to find examples of policies and incentives that prevent the progress required in this area. For example, travel grants available to graduate students provide increased funding for more distant travel, thereby incentivizing students to attend conferences in other countries for which low-carbon transport is not an option. Why not take that free trip to the conference in Europe over the conference in Los Angeles if it costs the same to you?

While this problem is complex and multifaceted, the solutions don’t need to be. First, modify the structures that incentivize people to fly. For example, if a graduate student chooses to go to a conference in San Francisco instead of one in Sydney or finds a way to participate remotely, they should be rewarded for this behavior rather than left with the feeling of leaving money on the table. Living in an area where the median rent exceeds graduate student stipends and more than one-third of graduate students report moderate to severe depression, increased money for rent assistance or mental health resources could go a long way.

In addition to financial incentives, there are time incentives as well. Carpooling or taking the bus or train are lower carbon alternatives but are much slower. Offering “journey days” — paid days off to take slower, lower carbon transport rather than flying — could go a long way toward facilitating the use of these modes of transportation.

Second, we must invest in the digital and physical infrastructures needed for new types of scientific collaboration. As the immense carbon footprint of the academic lifestyle is increasingly acknowledged, people are starting to experiment with digital alternatives. For example, I recently remotely joined four other online participants and 30 in-person participants in a meeting held at Janelia Research Campus near Ashburn, Virginia. 

The process worked so well that we decided to hold all future meetings digitally. Key to that success was a dedicated information technology staff and the infrastructure to make this participation seamless (microphones, speakers, projectors). As a university, we should be investing similarly in this type of infrastructure by providing existing resources free of charge and experimenting to determine the best practices for online participation. 

Third, we must implement a carbon pricing program. Such systems are a consensus solution to the climate crisis among economists across the political spectrum. The idea is simple: add an additional cost to any carbon-intensive activity that reflects the damage caused by its emissions. Over time, people shift their behavior toward the less damaging activity. This is feasible on the university level, as recently demonstrated by Yale University, ETH Zurich and UCLA.

The proceeds can be reinvested in teaching and research or used to fund other climate adaptation projects. Since the UC system is the largest employer in the fifth-largest economy in the world, such a policy could make a meaningful dent in emissions. Furthermore, it could position the UC system as a leader in the ground-up movement to create and link disparate carbon markets around the world, a goal that world leaders are already pursuing.

We have a long way to go as a university, but there’s already a lot that can be done with the right policies in place. The time is now for UC Berkeley to make these changes, both for advancing generations and the ones that are here right now.

Henry Pinkard is a fifth-year graduate student in computational biology and a fellow of the Berkeley Institute for Data Science.