UM seeks strategies to achieve carbon neutrality on campus

Tom DeLuca, dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana, writes down ideas the school can utilize to reduce carbon emissions on campus during the Campus Climate Conversation last week at the University Center. DeLuca suggested investing in solar panels and creating more student engagement opportunities. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

UM Sustainability led the fifth annual University of Montana Campus Climate Conversation last week, urging campus leaders to “be bold” with strategies to reduce emissions as the deadline for the campus’ 2020 carbon neutrality goal approaches.

Faculty, staff and students brainstormed ideas for UM President Seth Bodnar for the overall Climate Action Plan implemented by former President George Dennison in 2007.

Sustainability coordinator Eva Rocke said carbon neutrality through energy conservation and efficiency is the goal. The meeting did not set a new date to reach carbon neutrality, but did provide strategies and objectives from different departments to reduce carbon emissions.

“We really want people to be creative. If what we need is capacity building, is it via partnerships? Are there areas where we can leverage existing resources on campus? Is it policy change? Is it program implementation? Is it prioritizing certain types of work?” Rocke said in an interview.

The Sustainable Campus Committee, led by Rocke and made up of other faculty dedicated to sustainability, introduced a few strategies that could be pursued, asking participants for suggestions on implementation and to rank importance.

Providing additional funds from the UM Foundation for the Kless Revolving Energy Loan Fund, which would be used to finance energy projects across campus, and taking a step forward toward renewable energy resources were a few goals. Using a natural gas combustion turbine, also known as combined heat and power generation, or CHP, to produce UM’s power and steam was another.

“CHP came up a lot. Our table’s concern with that is that it continues to tie us to fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. So even though it would take a big chunk out of our carbon emissions and it would pay for itself over 10 years – that’s an amazing technology – we are still locking ourselves into using natural gas for a very long time,” said Trevor Lowell, director of sustainability for UM Dining.

Participants suggested using carbon offsets, or ways to compensate for emissions by funding an equivalent carbon dioxide saving elsewhere. Others liked the idea of implementing a policy that prohibits the construction of additional built space on campus without eliminating or decommissioning existing space.

Looking for people who care about climate change during hiring processes would also be a viable way to make climate action happen.

“Why not have incentives and accountability at the director and manager level to make climate action work happen? So in the same way you have your own evaluation and personnel evaluation processes where faculty get evaluated, why don’t our managers and deans and directors also have a few sustainability or climate action related points in their evaluation?” Rocke said during last week’s event.

Brett Kaplan, a sophomore studying resource conservation, said the sustainability department should have a bigger presence through more funding, by hiring more faculty and having more student engagement.

“Our enrollment is down and our funding is not the best, so I think framing ourselves as a sustainable campus can boost enrollment and increase revenue coming in because somebody like me studying environmental studies, if I saw that the campus was sustainable, I’d be more inclined to go there,” Kaplan said.

In 2015, UM met its goal of a 10 percent emissions reduction below the 2007 baseline year, and in 2018 became the first university in the Northern Rockies to earn a STARS rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. UM received a bronze rating that year.

However, four new buildings opened on campus in 2016, causing a setback in carbon emission progress. But infrastructure improvements prioritizing energy efficiency and conservation are ongoing, resulting in gold certifications through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program for the Student Athlete Academic Center, the Gilkey Executive Education Building and the Missoula College River Campus.

“2020 is right around the corner,” Rocke said. “It’s quickly approaching, and we want our campus partners to recognize that we haven’t been sitting around for the past 10 years. We need to regroup and see what more can be feasibly done.”

Suggestions and ideas made during last week’s conversation will be compiled into a report that will be sent to UM leadership in the coming weeks.

Reporter Mari Hall can be reached via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.