UC reduces emissions, critics say there is much more to be done

Infographic about decreasing UC carbon emissions
Annie Lin/Senior Staff
While the UC system reported a decrease in carbon emissions, critics pointed out that much of the decrease can be attributed to factors related to COVID-19.

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This article has been updated to include information from UC Office of the President spokesperson Stett Holbrook.

Following its Jan. 20 meeting, the UC Board of Regents released a report and press release declaring that emissions had declined to 1990 levels, meeting its goal for 2020.

“University of California … had set ambitious targets of carbon neutrality and have dedicated unprecedented focused resources (toward) climate change, equity and sustainability,” said inaugural medical director of sustainability at University of California Health Seema Gandhi. “This has established UC system as a national leader and role model.”

According to the report, much of this decline is attributed to COVID-19. For instance, commute emissions decreased because there were fewer in-person activities.

Some have critiqued the UC system’s emissions claims, arguing that while its report adequately addresses the ways in which the pandemic has affected emission levels, the press release does not.

David Romps, campus professor of climate physics, alleged that it was misleading for the UC system to title its press release “UC’s greenhouse gas emissions are now at 1990 levels — and declining” and not include the role that COVID-19 played in this reduction.

Stett Holbrook, spokesperson for UC Office of the President, said in an email that campus closures did indeed reduce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to a roughly 24% decrease from 2019 to 2020.

Romps also alleged that the UC system’s claim that net emissions had declined is in itself misleading because it is not reflective of merely on-campus emissions, but also carbon offsets purchased by the UC system.

“UC’s purchase of those offsets does nothing to offset the climate impact of its own on-campus burning of methane,” Romps said.

At UC Berkeley, the cogeneration plant, which relies on natural gas and provides 90% of UC Berkeley’s campuswide energy, accounts for 71% of the campus’s emissions according to an article published by The Daily Californian in March of last year. However, this plant is reaching the end of its life cycle.

According to ElectrifyUC.org, a website created by the UC Green New Deal Coalition, which is pushing for the electrification of the UC system, campus officials are primarily considering what is called “Option 12” which would refurbish the current cogeneration plant and build another gas turbine and generator.

Alternatively, the website said “Option 11c” aims to completely electrify energy sourcing at UC Berkeley.

“UC should be learning from a certain university in the South Bay,” Romps said. “In 2015, Stanford demolished its methane gas plant.”

Presently, only 55% of the UC system’s energy is carbon-free, according to its Jan. 20 press release. The UC system acknowledges its reliance on nonrenewable energy in its recent press release, stating that its use of natural gas “remains a major challenge.”

While it recognizes this challenge, the UC system also mentions in its press release that it plans to focus on decarbonization this year.

“Like we invest in systems to improve quality, safety and outcomes, investing in systems to decrease waste and improve sustainability should be an institutional pillar,” Gandhi said.


Molly Cochran is a higher education reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @mollyacochran .