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Carbon Neutrality Won’t Do

  • Carbon Neutrality at the UC has four components: Building Efficiency, Biogas, Renewable Electricity Credits and Carbon Offsets.
  • Building Efficiency gains were impressive, but the low-hanging fruit are picked; further expansion of the campuses by 30% or more is erasing any gains. Moreover, the huge carbon dioxide emissions from the cement pours are not even counted (there is about 1:1 ratio between one tonne of cement and one tonne of carbon dioxide emissions).
  • Biogas (which is biomethane) is not generally scaleable; it also leaks methane, a potent Greenhouse Gas; and it has the same problem as other offsets. See this page to learn more about biogas.
  • The UC is purchasing electricity from renewable sources in the state. But that renewable electricity is being increasingly generated under state law, whether UC buys it or not.
  • The mainstay of UC’s climate action plan is carbon offsets. The offsets UC has already bought seem of a very low standard. And the offsets UC plans to buy are riddled with typical problems including fostering neocolonialism, uncertainty, additionality, scalability and non-permanence. In any event, carbon offsetting will not reduce emissions.
  • Instead of “carbon neutral” we need “fossil free”; instead of “net zero” we need “zero carbon”. Language matters. It sets the goal. And “carbon neutral” is a lie.

Acquired by Public Record Request.

The UC is a leader in climate change research and policy. And yet, its ten campuses emit more than a million metric tons of CO2 every year from burning methane.

In 2013, then-UC-president Janet Napolitano launched the ‘Carbon Neutrality Initiative.’ This unfunded mandate, handed down from the Office of the President to the individual campuses, promised that the university would go ‘carbon neutral’ by 2025. 

In the first few years, the focus was on energy efficiency measures, such as better insulation, and lights that turned on with movement sensors. These efforts were successful in reducing emissions, but those savings have now been erased with a dramatic new building plan at the UCs (expanding the campus footprint around 30%, also with huge concrete pours, another source of GHGs). While the efficiency gains were a striking achievement, the low-hanging efficiency fruit are surely now picked, and the emissions goals set by President Napolitano are still way out of reach. 

Three quarters of the university’s energy is supplied by methane, a fossil fuel, obtained by highly toxic hydraulic fracturing methods. The UC looked into replacing methane with biogas, but that is, at best, a limited solution: there are serious problems with price, scale, supply, and leakage (of a potent GHG). Also, by bolstering biomethane plants, the UC will likely prop up intensive dairy operations or non-regenerative agriculture. Other issue with biogas are discussed here.

The UC experts concluded that the only path to genuine decarbonization lay with electrification of the campus energy systems, but that was rejected as too expensive. Meanwhile, billions of dollars were found for new buildings.

So, with minimal investment in genuinely decarbonizing the university’s energy systems, the Carbon Neutrality Initiative is planning to make up the shortfall with inexpensive “carbon offsets.” These are schemes to which institutions and individuals contribute, to try to “make good” on their own greenhouse gas emissions: for example, UC continues to burn methane while paying for forest preservation somewhere else. These carbon offsets have been called ‘licenses to pollute’ and likened to the ‘indulgences’ of the Catholic church (a pay-for-prayer scam). Thus, for the UC, ‘carbon neutrality’ does not mean reducing its emissions; it means paying people elsewhere (generally in low-income countries) to reduce their emissions while we go about business-as-usual.  

Along with many members of the wider climate action and climate justice movement, we object to offsets in principle and in practice.

First, we object to offsets in principle. The idea that we can pay someone in a poor part of the globe to reduce their emissions so that people in the richest country in the world can continue to burn fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases is morally bankrupt. Even if it works exactly as promised (which we very much doubt), all that ‘carbon neutrality’ achieves is the maintenance of the status quo. The IPCC 2018, backed by the world’s governments, was very clear: we need to reduce emissions by about 50% by 2030 from 2010 levels to have a chance of keeping global heating to only 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. So the UC must stop burning natural gas. It can also, at the same time, support reforestation projects. The latter is no substitute for the former.  

In addition to these principled objections, there are a host of problems with offsets in practice. These financial instruments do not even begin to work as promised. We have broken down the practical issues into four main categories:

  • Additionality: For an action to count as a carbon offset — for it to function as a license to pollute elsewhere — it has to be something that would not have happened in the absence of the offset scheme. It must, in the legal language, be ‘additional.’  Planting trees in the Amazon, to take one example of a proposed UC offset, is a worthy goal in its own right. But the very fact that something is worth doing for reasons other than the climate means that there are a myriad of other ways to achieve it — government subsidies, scientific funding, wealthy donors, grassroots community collaboration. When the UC funds something as an offset, this means that other ways to finance it are squeezed out. For example, philanthropy might be replaced by California tax-payer dollars. Additionality is impossible to prove — it is a counterfactual. Like many fundamentally corrupt financial instruments, offsets therefore rely on inflated story-telling, including spinning pessimistic narratives about what would happen in the absence of the offset program. 
  • Uncertainty: The other side of the pessimistic narrative about what would happen in the absence of the offset program is the wildly optimistic story that has to be constructed about how much carbon the particular program will sequester. To take the example of a reforestation project, the trees are assumed to grow to maturity and to live a normal lifespan. These projects unfold in countries suffering from acute climate disruptions and often lacking the rule of law. How likely is it that wildcat logging, mining and agricultural encroachment can be held at bay under these circumstances? How likely is it that delicate political agreements will be honored without corruption? How likely is it that all these things will hold true at a time when the climate emergency is accelerating — because of the actions of institutions like ours — and countries are experiencing increased instability as a result?  
  • Durability: The criterion of durability for the UC offsets schemes is set at forty years, whereas carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years. This discrepancy alone should disqualify the whole program. The carbon cycle of forests is fundamentally incommensurate with the carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels. The idea behind reforestation projects is that the trees store carbon dioxide which then “offsets” an equivalent amount of carbon emitted by the University of California. The problem with this logic is that trees are part of the dynamic ocean-atmosphere-biosphere system: a tree planted today, or one burned in a fire tomorrow, represents a temporary movement of carbon within that system.  On the other hand, when UC burns methane, it injects new carbon into the ocean-atmosphere-biosphere system, and that keeps carbon dioxide elevated in our atmosphere for thousands of years. The idea that planting a tree, or not cutting one down,  is in any way equivalent to leaving fossil fuel in the ground is fundamentally and dangerously wrong-headed. The difference is not apples and oranges, it is apples and lumps of coal.
  • Scalability: Even if we put aside the above problems, UC’s planned offset purchases can’t cut it, simply because they are impossibly cheap. Let’s assume UC spends $7.50 / tonne of CO2 (its stated rate) to ‘offset’ 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year from burning fracked methane. That would amount to $7.5 million per year for all campuses. But for UCSD alone, the campus is already spending $10 million per year, right now, buying fracked methane! More generally, if the entire world used this price of $7.5 / tonne, to ‘offset’ the 40 gigatonnes of emissions per year, that would cost $300 billion, which is a fraction of the US defense budget alone – to deal with the emissions of the whole world! Thus, the very cheapness of offsets should raise our suspicions.

The UC must abandon the offsets program publically, and redirect the resources set aside for it into planning for electrification of the campus energy systems. 

Any path to stopping global heating must pass through genuine decarbonization of our infrastructure. Investing in a false accounting of ‘carbon neutrality’ is a form of climate denial: it denies the reality of our emissions and our responsibility to curb them. The UC prides itself on being a climate leader; we want the university to lead the world in real solutions, not in greenwashing.

The bulk of the UC Carbon Neutrality strategy relies on biogas (biomethane) and Offsets. Biogas will be sourced from the MidWest and other sites, and burned there to give UC ‘credits’ to keep burning fracked methane on its campuses. Offsets will be provided by UC’s own offset projects plus those bought on the market.