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UC Says It’ll Meet 2025 Carbon Neutral Goal, Yet Remains a Massive California Polluter


UCLA's cogeneration facility, pictured to the left, runs off of methane gas. Despite plans to achieve what the University of California is calling "carbon neutrality" by 2025, carbon dioxide emissions for the university went up in 2020, from 219,000 to 225,000 metric tons. Other UC campuses are also failing to do their part in deserting fossil fuels to mitigate climate change.

[Originally published in the Sacramento Bee, June 19th 2021]

The corporation Apple has pledged to be ‘carbon neutral’ by 2030, as have entire countries such as China (by 2060). Even Shell Oil is in the carbon neutral game. But what does ‘carbon neutrality,’ (sometimes used interchangeably with the phrase 'net zero') really mean? And can it prevent the climate crisis from escalating?

We believe the answer to the last question is a resounding no. To explain why, we look here at the carbon neutrality pledge of our own very large institution, the University of California, where we are faculty members. The UC has publicly announced that it will be carbon neutral by 2025, but it intends to reach the goal without cutting its vast emissions of greenhouse gases. Here we explain how this sleight of hand will work, and why it should be rejected, not only for the university, but also for the wider world.

The UC has not only produced some of the most important climate research in the world, it has also committed to shrinking its own carbon footprint. At regular intervals, the UC Sustainability Office issues glowing reports on progress toward its climate goals.

But the UC also emits more than a million tons of carbon dioxide every year. Seven of the ten campuses have dedicated power plants running on fracked methane gas, a fossil fuel only marginally less polluting than coal. This means that, self-congratulatory rhetoric aside, the UC massively contributes to the very problem it has done so much to illuminate.

We know that getting off fossil fuels isn’t easy, but instead of confronting this difficulty head-on, the UC has chosen to invest in the false solution of the Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI). This program began in 2013 when then-UC-President Janet Napolitano decreed that the whole university system be “carbon neutral by 2025.

Early on, genuine gains were made. The first plank of the CNI was energy efficiency. By replacing light bulbs, and optimizing the heating and cooling of buildings, the campuses were able to expand without increasing emissions. This was no small achievement, but these efforts have slowed. And because of campus growth, actual emissions numbers have not budged.

The second plank started in 2017 when the UC became a purchaser of electricity generated from a larger percentage of renewable sources. However, less than 15% of campus energy comes from purchased electricity. We generate the rest ourselves, using fracked methane.

The third plank was to ‘replace’ fracked methane with credits for biomethane derived from agricultural and human waste. This ran into grave problems with supply, regulation, cost and methane leakage.

Meanwhile, a group of experts convened by the university concluded in a 2018 report that the UC could only achieve real decarbonization “through the elimination of [methane] gas from its operations.” Although this conclusion came out of the CNI itself, the political will to implement it turned out to be lacking.

Now, as the 2025 deadline approaches, it is clear what carbon neutrality at the UC really means: we will continue to rely on fracked methane to power the campuses, the emissions from which will be mostly “neutralized” through carbon offsets. Such offsets are certification schemes under which polluters pay for people elsewhere to sequester greenhouse gases on their behalf.

It sounds logical. What does it matter if we reduce emissions right here or somewhere else? Unfortunately, these schemes do not begin to work as promised.

At some level, the UC seems to know this. When we asked the Sustainability Office for data about offsets they said they had no information about any offsets that had been purchased. A few months later, however, UC Merced announced with much fanfare that it had achieved carbon neutrality, partly through the use of offsets. Our attempts to get details were met with evasion, silence and, finally, downright refusal.

We then found out by digging through past years’ sustainability office reports that UCLA has been buying offsets for years to reach its climate goals. UCLA, too, evaded our questions and then stopped answering our emails.

In the end, we did a Public Records Request. We discovered that since 2014, the UC has invested in at least 326,275 tons of carbon offsets, all of the same type: “Landfill Gas: Capture/Combustion.” This is how it works. When waste decomposes in a landfill, it produces biomethane. When biomethane is burned, it produces carbon dioxide. Since (bio)methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, burning it reduces the contribution of the landfill to global heating. Because in California every landfill has by law to capture its biomethane gas, the UC instead invested in offset projects located in low-regulation states. In such states, smaller landfills can sell offset certificates when they take this most basic of mitigation measures - flaring the methane to produce carbon dioxide.

An alternative to flaring is to use landfill methane to generate energy. And, if that energy replaces a fossil fuel source, then it does represent a genuine reduction. Yet, the university did not do any such ‘replacement’. It continued to burn fracked methane on campuses while paying for biomethane “destruction” (the industry euphemism for conversion to carbon dioxide), mostly achieved with open flares.

Ultimately, the purchase of these offsets by the university amounts to this: the UC claims to ‘neutralize’ the atmospheric damage it causes when it burns fracked methane and emits carbon dioxide by paying landfills in low-regulation states to burn biomethane and emit carbon dioxide. No wonder UC Merced and UCLA want to keep the details hidden.

Getting off the gas will be expensive, but instead of hiding our pollution behind talk of ‘carbon neutrality’ we must confront the problem of our smokestack emissions honestly. Instead of investing millions in offsets, we must make plans to power the campuses with electricity derived from solar and wind. Unless universities like ours direct some of their enormous financial and intellectual power to the work of going fossil-free, they will remain part of the problem of climate change, not part of the solution. The same goes for all institutions, states, and nations using offsets to reach their climate goals.

Cathy Gere is a professor of history of science at UC San Diego, currently researching the concept of the commons in law, philosophy and environmental activism. Adam Aron is a professor of psychology at UC San Diego. He does research on cognitive neuroscience and teaches on the climate crisis.

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