UC San Diego Carbon Offsets & Electrification


As the threat of climate change continues to loom over our heads, UC San Diego has served as a leader in reducing carbon emissions and seeking carbon neutrality. However, seeking “net zero” is not enough to address climate change. UC San Diego must turn towards electrification — rather than relying on carbon offsets and other carbon diversifying methods — if we are to actually take steps towards a real change in our carbon footprint.

Climate change is one of the greatest existential threats of our time. According to the IPCC, we must cut carbon emissions down by 45% by 2030 in an attempt to lower heating to only 1.5˚ C above pre-industrial levels. In response to this growing issue, UC San Diego has taken action to reduce its carbon footprint, being hailed as a leader in environmental performance and low carbon operations. Yet, the University of California (UC) system as a whole has been stilted by further debate over how to further reduce carbon emissions in a sustainable and realistic manner.

In 2019, the UC system declared a climate emergency with UC President Janet Napolitano and all 10 of its Chancellors. Together, with more than 7,000 further and higher educational institutions around the world, the UC system collectively committed to the system-wide goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025. The document recognizes that there must be drastic change to mitigate and limit carbon emissions. UC leaders agreed to a three-point plan that also includes mobilizing more resources for action-oriented climate change research and increasing environmental and sustainability education across UC curriculums, campuses, and outreach programs.

UC Carbon Neutrality is made up of four components: building efficiency, biogas, renewable electricity credits, and carbon offsets. While building efficiency has been somewhat effective, expanding campuses more than 30% risks eliminating any gains, and the constant construction on UC San Diego’s campus continues to increase carbon emissions unaccounted for. Additionally, biomethane is not effectively scalable and has been buried beneath astronomically high costs, unstable supply, and methane leakage. Relying heavily on biomethane is also likely to bolster Big Agriculture, further exasperating existing agriculture-related emissions and raising ethical dilemmas. As for renewable electricity, the UC system refused to adopt electrification on the basis that it is too expensive; yet, the UC system is willing to spend plenty of money on the expansion of its UC San Diego campus.

Therefore, the core of UC’s climate action plan depends primarily on carbon offsets. Carbon offsets are meant to enable a company or university to pay a third party to reduce emissions in an effort to cover emissions they themselves cannot reduce. But this is especially worrisome — such offsets are riddled by uncertainty, lack strict government regulation, and do not address the actual problem of carbon emissions in the first place. Rather, carbon offsets enable the wealthy to pay their way out of the climate problem without making genuine changes in their practices. This incentives big corporations and institutions to avoid adopting renewable practices and spreads the misconception of carbon neutrality as an effective way to mitigate and reduce climate change. The ultimate goal of the UC system should not be “carbon neutrality” or “net zero”; instead, it must be the total elimination of fossil fuels.

UC San Diego generates 87% of its own energy with a cogeneration plant, a power plant that generates electricity and useful heat simultaneously. When fuel energy is converted into heat in cogeneration plants, the bulk of heat released into the environment is not wasted. This means that less fuel is needed to generate the same amount of energy a conventional power plant would produce. While reduced fuel use does aid in lowering emissions, it is still powered by fracked methane. As a result, UC San Diego is one of the most polluting campuses in the entire UC system, emitting a total of about 300k tons of CO2 annually. In total, UC San Diego burns around $10 million per year worth of fracked methane in its cogeneration plant. Therefore, it is essential to seek alternative sources of energy as the climate crisis continues to worsen.

In 2016, Buro Happold Engineering conducted a study of how to obtain carbon neutrality at UC San Diego. Five possible paths were laid out, with the fourth being electrification. This would require the removal of the cogeneration plan, conversion to a low-temperature campus hot-water loop, and installation of a heat recovery chiller plant. However, this was not taken seriously at the time, and the campus decided to diversify power generation through measures such as on-site biogas, energy efficiency, and carbon offsets. But this has only permitted the UC San Diego campus to indefinitely rely upon the methane-fired cogeneration plant, continuing to consume carbon offsets instead of actually taking meaningful measures to reach the university’s carbon neutrality pledges. This reinforces that, for the UC system, carbon neutrality does not mean reducing emissions — it means paying other people elsewhere, usually in low-/middle-income countries, to reduce their emissions for them.

On March 11th, 2021, the UC San Diego Chancellor, Pradeep Khosla, affirmed that $250,000 had been allocated to explore the electrification option. This marks a revolutionary step forward, with UC San Diego being the first UC campus to finally take true action towards electrification. While other UC campuses continue to struggle in obtaining adequate funding, UC San Diego has the opportunity to stand as a leader for other schools and universities around the world to follow suit. As one of the largest institutions in the world, not only does UC San Diego have the opportunity to lead other UC schools, but it also has the ability and influence to lead the nation away from carbon offsets and towards the goal of electrification.