Op-Ed: UConn: Address the climate crisis

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Sarah Hill is a senior environmental studies major and the USG Sustainability Advocacy Coordinator this semester at UConn Storrs, as well as a Climate Reality Leader with the Climate Reality Project. 

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Oil platforms (pictured above) extract petroleum from underneath seabeds. The greenhouse gases produced when fossil fuels like petroleum are used as an energy source are a main contributor in the climate crisis. Photo by Jan-Rune Smenes Reite on Pexels.com

We’re in a pandemic, and while that on its own is concerning and mentally exhausting for anyone, I’m not sure how more people don’t realize that this will not be over even after we get past this pandemic. Why? Because climate change will cause more pandemics and the heightened transmissibility of diseases, along with increasing temperatures and sea levels and a host of other problems. That’s the bad news. The good news? We can take action to address the climate crisis. 

Everyone on campus knows how much UConn loves bragging about how environmentally sustainable they are and how highly they are ranked by organizations like the Sierra Club. And yes, ranking high for sustainability is great and we should be proud of that. But how much are we really doing when we are still largely relying on fossil fuels, burning all our trash, contributing to plastic pollution and forming contracts with companies who don’t have a great track record with sustainability? 

Let’s break this down. 

Why is relying on fossil fuels bad? This one is well known. Our reliance on fossil fuels is what is fueling the climate crisis. Fossil fuels emit greenhouse gases when used as an energy source, primarily carbon dioxide. Fossil fuels also include natural gas, which emits methane at a high rate, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. How can we address this? By committing and transitioning to 100% renewable energy and divesting from fossil fuels. 

This requires us to address the Cogeneration Plant on our UConn Storrs campus which, according to the UConn website, uses natural gas which they call “a cleaner burning fuel.” This claim is not true because natural gas is a fossil fuel which emits carbon dioxide and methane. The next thing we have to think about with this Cogeneration Plant is, as UConn Fridays for Future initially brought to our attention, the fact that UConn plans to update the boilers at the plant, showing a long-term commitment to the use of natural gas rather than any inclination to “phase out” our reliance which the 2020 Sierra Club ranking listed as a reason for our high score. 

This big idea of UConn’s reliance on fossil fuels and the current displayed attitude that it is fine to continue our reliance also begs us to look at the goals and commitments our state has made at large. Let’s look at an executive order Governor Lamont made to illustrate the problems. In Sept. 2019, Governor Lamont issued Executive Order 3 in which he committed the state of Connecticut to achieving zero carbon (let me emphasize, 100% zero carbon, not even net zero) by 2040. While that date is too far away in my opinion — since scientists say 2030 is the year we need to make significant change by in order to avoid the most devastating impacts of the climate crisis — 2040 is still a date we will be unable reach zero carbon by if we continue our reliance on fossil fuels, which UConn is effectively doing by updating the Cogeneration Plant. With all these things in mind, we should heed the petition and recommendations of UConn Fridays for Future in regard to updating the boilers at the facility. I urge the administration to meet with them and take their demands seriously. 

photo of plastic bottles
Nearly all plastics are made from fossil fuels and the dependency on plastics traps us into relying heavily on fossil fuels. Though recycling seems to be a solution, it’s not as efficient as it seems due to its limited lifecycle and the high-energy process required to recycle plastics. Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Why is burning all our trash bad? It may seem like a great idea to burn trash to produce energy, but that’s actually a major environmental justice issue. When trash is burned, it releases many bad emissions, including carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, which negatively impacts the community the site is located in. These sites are disproportionately located in BIPOC-majority communities and lead to health problems, as well as a polluted environment. How can we address this? This is a more complicated answer because there is no easy solution and this is how our entire state deals with waste, other than a small percentage going to landfills (which aren’t great either). The best way to address this problem right now is to compost our food waste, recycle, reuse or repurpose material that is still in good condition, and generally consume or purchase less so there is less that can be thrown away. 

Why is plastic so bad? Well, along with causing plastic pollution when it gets into our waters, pollutes our ocean and harms marine life, the very production of plastic is an environmental justice issue. Plastic producing facilities are again disproportionately located in BIPOC-majority and marginalized communities, further contributing to poor environmental and human health. Plastic also locks us into our reliance on fossil fuels as 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels. How can we address this? This one is pretty simple: Stop purchasing plastic! Yes, our society is very reliant on plastic, but — newsflash — we weren’t always! We can buy alternatives to a lot of plastic products, such as glass or aluminum bottles instead of plastic. 

So why is the solution to the plastic problem not recycling? First of all, again the material plastic is made from and how it locks us into a reliance on fossil fuels, and, secondly, because recycling really isn’t as great as it’s been made out to be. While there is a problem with recyclable products not being put in recycling bins by individuals or not being cleaned before they are, even if they were, that does not guarantee any great outcome. With plastic, there’s only so many times it can be recycled before it is made into a product that will likely end up in the trash. This also assumes the plastic was actually recycled through a high energy process and not just shipped to another country to be burned and/or pollute their environment in another major environmental justice issue. 

Why is forming contracts with companies who don’t have a great track record on sustainability a bad thing? Well, I don’t think this requires a long answer. If we work with an unsustainable company, we’re supporting their unsustainable and environmentally harmful actions and effectively telling them that we don’t care if they harm the planet (and the people living in it). While not all of the three previous problems are directly related to this point, the problem of plastic definitely is as UConn has long maintained a contract with Coca Cola, the world’s #1 plastic polluter, and may form a new contract with them this year. But, the other side of these economic relationships that administration has raised is that by working with these unsustainable organizations we can influence them to be better. My response, though? Prove it. If we’re working with these unsustainable companies, effectively taking money away from arguably better, sustainable organizations, while priding ourselves on sustainability, we should and we hold them to a higher standard. If they want UConn as a partner, they have to do better. UConn either needs to partner with sustainable companies or really raise the level of their partners like they claim they can. 

So, overall, what can UConn do as a first step? In my mind, a simple first step is to declare a Climate Emergency. Show your commitment to addressing the climate crisis by first acknowledging it. If that’s all UConn does, we as students will take it from there and make sure more action is taken, because activism cannot and will not stop. 

I’m the Sustainability Advocacy Coordinator for the Undergraduate Student Government this semester, and I promise you: This is not the last time you will be hearing about the climate crisis and how we must take action now. That is my primary focus within the subcommittee this semester, and it is something that all of the environmental groups on campus have been focusing on for a long time. I would like to thank them and extend an invitation to them, as well as to cultural centers and all students, to come to the Sustainability Subcommittee and let your voices be heard and elevated. 

It is those who have been experiencing environmental racism and facing the brunt of climate disasters who have been advocating and taking action for our planet and our people for the longest, and they deserve to be recognized and have their work and voices elevated. 

You can reach me and future Sustainability Advocacy Coordinators at sustainability@usg.uconn.edu. And while we are still in the process of deciding on a meeting time for this semester (virtual meetings, of course), if you email me I will include you in our subcommittee. I am also open to meeting with you one-on-one if there is any relevant subject matter you are passionate about. 

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