Northwestern grapples with climate change

    By 2050, Northwestern University aims to produce net zero carbon emissions. To achieve this, sustainNU has developed a comprehensive plan to lower the university’s carbon emissions and become a more environmentally-friendly campus.

    SustainNU created a strategic sustainability plan which maps out goals until 2021. Their plan includes objectives for five areas: built environment, transportation, resource conservation, experiential learning and communications and engagement. Ultimately, these five areas aim to improve the efficiency of buildings and transportation on campus, while also teaching students more about sustainability.

    Recently, sustainNU released the university’s carbon emissions data for 2017. Total emissions increased from 2016 to 2017 because the university was not able to offset as much purchased electricity. This was because a contract did not renew in time. However, there was a 3 percent reduction in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCDE) in 2017 from the 2012 baseline, meaning the university is emitting less carbon.

    Why is it so important to emit less carbon? When carbon dioxide is released and remains in the atmosphere, it absorbs heat. Over time, the heat is released and warms the planet. This is a necessary process to prevent the planet from freezing, but the growing amounts of carbon dioxide cause a significant absorption of heat and increases the temperature.

    The urgent need to change our habits was brought to light by a study released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October. The report stresses the importance of limiting global warming to prevent drastic environmental disasters, like the rising sea levels or the loss of entire ecosystems.

    Even locally, climate change has visible impact in Chicago and Great Lakes area. As a result of climate change, more extreme weather events, like flooding and droughts, are more common and severe.

    Professor Daniel Horton, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern University, describes a specific “climate justice issue” as a result of extreme weather. In Chicago, areas in the north and south side typically flood more easily. Horton explained that these areas are not equipped with the necessary tools to deal with flooding and the people who live in these areas are often minorities in a lower socioeconomic class.

    Along with civil engineers and anthropologists, Horton is involved in research group at Northwestern that deals with the effects of climate change and extreme weather and the differing impact these events have on the people of Chicago. They hope to learn more about climate justice issues in the local area, and the National Science Foundation is funding the group’s research efforts, and the research will be ongoing in the next couple years.

    To solve these issues, Northwestern’s research group is considering green infrastructure, which uses plants to mitigate the problems caused by climate change. Horton describes a potential solution to the flooding problem: bioswales, which are ditches that can soak up water instead of letting it accumulate.

    Climate change isn’t a problem for scientists to fix alone. Students can also play a role in mitigating climate change. By turning off the lights when leaving a room, using public transportation and using products with less packaging, students can make a difference.

    But Horton emphasized the importance of students educating themselves on environmental issues.

    “There’s also bigger picture issues, and these aren’t things students can’t necessarily change individually,” he said. “But collectively, they can make demands on their either elected officials or their university officials to make more fossil fuel conscientious decisions.”

    He also commented on the university’s initiatives.

    “I think Northwestern is moving in the right direction,” he said. “2050 is kind of a long way off. Given Northwestern’s resources and the brainpower that exists here, it would be great if we could accelerate that pace, but certainly, they’re aware of issues, and they have a plan that should get us carbon-neutral by 2050, so I see that as a positive.”


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