What is the U doing to address climate change?

May 10, 2021 | In the Media

You probably know that sustainability is a core value of the University of Utah, but did you know that the U is making significant progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from university operations?

In April 2019, former U President Ruth V. Watkins signed the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments and joined UC3 (University Climate Change Coalition), renewing the U’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050 and placing the institution on a path toward resilience and adaptation.

That same month, U students issued a resolution to the Academic Senate calling for a reaffirmation of the university’s commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions and, among other things, for the creation of a Presidential Task Force on Carbon Neutrality. The resolution passed with unanimous support and in mid-August, the Climate Commitment Task Force (CCTF) was formed. Today, the CCTF is on track to complete the U’s first climate resilience assessment this summer and then begin a process to update the 2010 Climate Action Plan.

While the CCTF is relatively new, multiple campus departments have worked for more than a decade to lessen the university’s climate impacts. Multiple efforts are underway that have kept the university on track to meet the 50% reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions called for in Strategy 2025.

Total reduction

Net greenhouse gas emissions from campus operations are approximately one-third lower now than they were in 2007 despite significant growth in building square footage and campus population.

There are four major components to this reduction:

  • Increased building energy efficiency. The U surpassed its Better Buildings Challenge (BBC) goal with energy savings of 25% across 17 million square feet of building space since 2008. Of the 23 colleges or universities that participated, the U was fifth in the nation to meet or exceed its BBC goal.
  • A switch to renewable electricity sources. A solar contract signed in 2020 means 71% of all electrical energy at the U is expected to be coming from renewable sources by mid-2022. Upon delivery, this contract would rank total renewables of the U at number five among all colleges and universities as reported by the EPA’s Green Power Partnership.
  • The U’s combined heat and power (CHP) plant. This system, which came online in 2009, produces about 11% of the electricity on campus and heats buildings directly from the waste heat. The combined efficiency results in substantially lower emissions for the same loads compared to normal purchases of grid-based electricity (mostly coal-based) and boiler-based heat production.
  • Changes to state electricity sources. The makeup of energy sources that generate electricity in the state of Utah, most of which is provided by Rocky Mountain Power (RMP), continues to get cleaner every year as more renewables come online and older assets are retired. More information can be found the makeup of production and trends in RMP’s Integrated Resource Plan here.

Next steps

Next year, the U will begin an updated climate action plan, which will reexamine the current 2050 target date for carbon neutrality, refine approaches for reducing emissions and identify steps toward increasing climate resilience. Additionally, the plan will define actions to expand carbon neutrality and resilience within curriculum and research.

“I am grateful for all the amazing work that has helped the university achieve these very meaningful reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions,” said Kerry Case, chief sustainability officer. “Moving forward, we must acknowledge that climate change has disproportionate impacts on marginalized people, so I am excited for the U to launch an equity-centered climate planning process that addresses our operations, curriculum, research and healthcare system.”

So, what is the U doing to address climate change?

Now U know!