Greenwashing at UConn: Trying to cross a canyon with baby steps 

The try and use fully renewable energy is a very difficult task and UConn is taking very small steps towards that goal. Photo by Pixabay/Pexels.

The University of Connecticut and the state’s leading energy industries have a key role to play in the transformation of our society away from fossil fuels and dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions — the only viable path towards preventing the emerging catastrophe of climate change. As one of the state’s most influential institutions, UConn is uniquely situated to instill tens of thousands of students with the technical and administrative skills — as well as the political and philosophical wherewithal — required to get on track to a sustainable and just society.

However, The Daily Campus Editorial Board continues to feel that UConn and state leaders do not currently have the political will to meet its stated commitments to achieving carbon-neutrality by 2030 and a zero-carbon infrastructure by 2040. With the absence of the broad, structural changes needed to accomplish these necessary goals, UConn students and other community advocates for sustainability and environmental justice have been met with greenwashing: ineffective, insufficient or superficial environmental policies that put the university in no better a position to address the existential threat of climate change.

UConn and utility giant Eversource partnered to host the inaugural Sustainable Clean Energy Summit Wednesday, Oct. 4 in the Student Union Theater, according to UConn Today. The goal of the summit was to contend with the challenges of decarbonizing Connecticut’s electric grid and communicating the payoff of transitioning away from fossil fuels. 

According to UConn President Radenka Maric, who spoke at the event, the university has shown numerous markers of progress on the decarbonization front, “including installing hydrogen fuel cells, enhancing efficiency of the onsite cogeneration power plant, and diverting food waste into compost and renewable energy production.” 

But the Editorial Board stresses that gradual steps towards carbon reduction are not the same as a planned and cooperative leap toward full decarbonization, nor do they sever UConn’s financial ties to the fossil fuel industry through mechanisms like the university endowment, as we have discussed previously

This distinction between carbon reduction spot-treatments and full decarbonization are significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, since Maric’s appointment to the office of president in fall of 2022, UConn has been increasingly vocal about hydrogen research and fuel cell development as an essential part of its clean energy reputation. In September of 2022, UConn signed onto a multi-state consortium to compete for federal funds enabling the development of a Northeast hydrogen hub “designed to advance leadership in clean hydrogen infrastructure deployment, research, and development,” according to UConn Today. On Friday, Oct. 13, UConn and the consortium lost their bid, leaving plans to expand Connecticut hydrogen infrastructure dead in the water. 

UConn currently sports a 400kW hydrogen fuel cell, supplied by UTC Power, which UConn Today reported would reduce the university’s carbon footprint by 831 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually; however, this number pales in comparison to actual greenhouse gas emissions, which exceeded 125,000 metric tons in 2021, according to a presentation by the President’s Carbon Reduction Working Group. 

The brand-enhancing bells and whistles of hydrogen energy and food waste conversion have proven incapable of meeting the challenge of decarbonizing UConn, yet they continue to be touted as some semblance of progress in the absence of a comprehensive plan to transition away from fossil fuels — as evinced by the incomplete “Sustainability Action Plan” section of the Working Group website. This continues to be an attempt to greenwash the university’s lack of a will to decarbonize, which is further visible by the scrapping of the President’s Working Group on Sustainability and the Environment 2019 report This report established a framework for weaning UConn off of fossil fuels. 

Student and community activists must understand the scope of UConn’s greenwashing in order to meaningfully challenge the university administration’s and Board of Trustees’ unwillingness to take a bold leap towards sustainability. Further, they must recognize the significance of the Maric administration’s abandonment of an existing decarbonization framework — that an exciting “clean energy” brand takes precedent over the actual health and well-being of the environment, and targeting this reputation may prove an invaluable tool for those seeking a change to the status quo. 

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