Six months after the City of Flagstaff approved its first Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, Northern Arizona University is embarking on its own effort to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of campus operations. If that announcement sounds familiar, it should.
This will be NAU’s fourth attempt in a decade to create and fully implement a climate action plan. While previous climate action and sustainability efforts have spurred significant achievements in energy and resource conservation, faculty, students and administrators said those past plans lacked clear and achievable steps to reach carbon neutrality as well as the necessary support and resources to do so. The university has already determined that it won’t meet its initial 2010 goal of achieving carbon neutrality within a decade, nor a subsequent goal of getting to net zero carbon emissions by 2040.
But NAU president Rita Cheng said this planning effort will be different.
“We're going to get pragmatic, we're going to have real goals, we're going to balance being audacious and being a leader with what we can actually get done, because I think we're going to hold ourselves more accountable this time,” Cheng said in an interview.
The university held a climate action plan kickoff meeting in April and plans to start working with a consultant this fall, said Matthew Muchna, the university’s new sustainability manager. Muchna said one of his key charges is to create a new climate action plan.
A central focus of the plan will be re-charting a path to carbon neutrality, university spokeswoman Kim Ott wrote in an email. Other priorities include increasing the accessibility and availability of campus carbon emissions data, conducting energy audits and increasing metering of building energy use, according to Ott and Muchna. Heating, cooling and providing electricity to the 100-plus buildings on campus represents the largest source of carbon emissions, so the university will have to focus on rapidly reducing energy consumption from the systems it already has in place while exploring possibilities for developing or purchasing renewable energy, Muchna said.
Some faculty and students are also advocating that the university put a price on carbon-emitting infrastructure and activities and use that money to fund emissions reduction measures like electric vehicles. Cheng called the idea provocative but didn’t say whether the university would consider implementing it.
City climate action
NAU’s renewed effort in climate action planning was spurred in part by the City of Flagstaff’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, Muchna said. Approved by the Flagstaff City Council in November, the city plan aims to achieve an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.
But reaching that goal won’t happen without action from the city’s largest resource users, including NAU, said Jenny Niemann, climate and energy specialist at the city. Niemann pointed out that the many environmentally focused professors, students and research programs on campus represent a valuable resource for spearheading climate action.
“In a lot of ways (NAU is) primed to be our number one partner in this,” she said. “Because NAU is such a big entity, it’s a huge positive step for them to say ‘we’re going to take care of our own house’ in partnership with the city.”
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Earth sciences and environmental sustainability professor Rod Parnell has worked on sustainability issues at NAU for more than a decade and said previous climate action efforts were too ambitious, didn’t identify parties responsible for implementation and weren’t matched by an increase in staffing capacity to carry out their goals. The university’s most recent climate action plan from 2018, for example, has already been deemed infeasible because it relies too much on still-emerging biomass technology to reach a goal of carbon neutrality by 2040.
As NAU now approaches 2020, the year it was supposed to achieve its original climate neutrality goal, the university is still far from reaching that benchmark. Natural gas is used to heat campus buildings and just 15 percent of purchased electricity comes from renewable sources, though an additional 1.5 percent comes from solar arrays on campus. NAU’s former sustainability manager cited the lack of support for climate action as a reason for her resignation from the university last year and over the past five years, the campus’ sustainability office has dwindled from five full-time employees to one.
But Muchna and others working on sustainability and climate action say several factors are building positive momentum and motivation for a new, workable climate action plan. One was the release of a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last fall that imparted a clear message about the urgent need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions within the next 11 years.
In November, the faculty senate put further pressure on university administration with a letter to President Cheng asking for “an NAU-centered response to climate change” that would include a new target date for carbon neutrality. NAU’s Graduate Student Government stepped up with its own support by establishing a new director of climate action position charged with helping NAU achieve its carbon neutrality goals.
For its part, the city has done the university a favor by establishing an ambitious and realistic plan that NAU can now follow, said Erik Nielsen, an environmental science and policy professor at NAU. Students and professors noted that NAU could help build stronger ties with the community by taking steps to reduce its own climate footprint.
Muchna’s hiring was seen as a positive step as well. Since his arrival this past winter, students have noticed that administrators seem to be more interested and engaged in climate and sustainability efforts on campus, said Kristen Morale, a 2019 graduate who worked in sustainability positions throughout her time at NAU.
Morale and several others acknowledged that reducing carbon emissions on campus could require hiking student fees. Students could be supportive as long as there is transparency about where the money is being spent, Morale said. She pointed to the recently-approved increase in the university’s Green Fund fee, which supports sustainability projects on campus, as evidence that students are willing to financially support green causes.
Whatever the funding mechanism, moving toward carbon neutrality will take significant investment and finding those resources will be a big, but crucial challenge for the university, Nielsen said.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm and aspiration 10 years ago and now we really need to get real,” he said.