There are many ways Princeton could reduce its carbon emissions that would promote education and research, and represent sound investments. Princeton Students United for a Responsible Global Environment (SURGE) and the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) are currently exploring the feasibility of building a Princeton wind farm or alternatively, purchasing wind power. Princeton could also invest in clean energy projects on campus, in the United States and abroad that produce carbon offsets, promote international development and offer potential profits to grow the endowment. These projects could include green technology investment in such areas as carbon capture and storage, biogas from agricultural waste or algae, methane harvesting from landfills and cellulosic ethanol production.
Princeton's plan falls short of international targets. To limit the most serious effects of climate change, scientists on the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes industrialized countries must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 (not simply meet 1990 levels, as Princeton plans.) As one of the world's leading universities and a center for cutting-edge research on climate change, Princeton should be a worldwide leader in sustainability, not a follower.
Some detractors of emissions reductions targets believe that efforts to move our emissions reductions off campus by buying energy from cleaner sources amount to "cheating." But investing in clean energy and emissions-reducing enterprises that other people produce is a familiar concept from all emissions cap-and-trade programs. Such cap-and-trade schemes incentivize the cheapest and most efficient emissions reduction projects, wherever they might be located, by allowing different entities to buy and sell emission credits, or "offsets." Princeton should not throw money at the problem by buying offsets instead of changing its actual energy use on campus. But the Sustainability Plan already has squeezed out most viable on-campus reductions. To meet international targets, Princeton should buy what it cannot cost-effectively save by itself.
Princeton has all the resources to make major commitments on bold greenhouse gas emission reductions. From a plan to meet aggressive targets for on-campus emissions to an outstanding Facilities Maintenance staff and many of the world's foremost climate change scientists, Princeton is poised to build on its already significant achievements in climate change mitigation. And Princeton has already made "engineering and a sustainable society" one of the pillars of its current $1.75 billion capital campaign to "stimulate fresh collaborations and propel inventive thinking" on urgent questions, including climate change.
The administration also has the political wind at its back: The University community wants emissions reductions. More over 700 students, alumni and faculty, including leading climate scientist professor Michael Oppenheimer, signed a petition this winter urging the University to match international emissions reduction targets of 25 percent below 1990 by 2020.
So why not set visionary targets?
Some argue that the costs would be too high. It is true that shrinking Princeton's carbon footprint will cost money, particularly given significant planned expansion in floor space and power demands in the coming decade. But the price tag, projected by PEI and SURGE at $4-$10 million per year (aside from a number of cost-saving practices and renovations, many of which are already underway), is at most 1 percent of Princeton's operating budget of over $1 billion. Furthermore, Princeton's endowment, at more than $15 billion, is the fifth-largest in the country and highest on a per-student basis. If Princeton were to spend 5 percent instead of 4.5 percent of its endowment annually - as some US congressmen have called for - that 0.5 percent could pay for the proposed annual emissions reductions ten times over.
Others argue that Princeton has limited resources, which should be focused on education and research, not on cleaning up campus emissions. Surely Princeton can do both. Through PEI, the Carbon Mitigation Initiative, the Office of Sustainability and numerous student groups, the University is already applying faculty and student brainpower to the climate problem. Any additional step to reduce emissions, such as building a Princeton wind farm, would not only be a natural research subject for Princeton's engineers and scientists, but an ideal educational tool as well.
Taking Princeton's climate commitments a step further is only a matter of vision and political will. Meeting internationally recognized targets and becoming a world leader on climate change is not only the right thing to do; it's within reach. A great university has an obligation to lead. Let's do it.
Andrew Eil is an MPA candidate in the Wilson School and the campus co-chair of SURGE. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.