Denverites, famous for their love of the outdoors, learned last summer that they’d be better off staying inside. Thanks to raging California wildfires and a return to pre-COVID commuting levels, the city’s air quality had earned the distinction of worst in the world.
Experts blame climate change and human activity for these disturbing conditions. As the world comes to grips with the ramifications of climate change, the University of Denver is doing its part to address the problem.
In 2008, DU signed on to what is now known as the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments and launched a push to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Now the University has moved the goalpost closer.
“We at DU choose to be carbon neutral not in three decades, but in this decade,” Chancellor Jeremy Haefner told the crowd assembled for his Oct. 8 inauguration ceremony on campus. “We choose to do so because of the challenge, because of our relentlessness, and because we are determined to do the right thing.”
Recent data show that the University produces 53,280 metric tons of carbon each year, Haefner noted.
Chad King, DU’s executive director of sustainability, breaks it down further. Electricity accounts for nearly 50% of DU’s carbon emissions. Another significant portion comes from the fuel used by DU’s vehicle fleet, the fertilizer that keeps the grounds vibrant, and the natural gas that heats buildings and water. King and his team also factor in University-sponsored air travel and commuting, as well as emissions associated with waste and wastewater.
With so many sources of carbon emissions to consider, the task of dropping emissions to zero is daunting, but possible and necessary.
“Collectively, we must plan carefully,” Haefner said. “We may have to make sacrifices, but these sacrifices pale in comparison to the consequences we will face—and the next generation of students will face—if we don’t act now.”
King and Haefner plan to convene a task force of University experts in sustainability and carbon neutrality to begin assessing strategies. In the meantime, King has a few ideas that range from technological solutions and working to change behaviors to exploring renewable energy innovations and evaluating more efficient ways to heat buildings.
Though Haefner’s bold goal sends DU into a new phase of sustainability projects, the University is no stranger to carbon-neutrality work. In addition to its 2008 commitment, DU set a previous goal of lowering its carbon emissions by 24% by 2020. Based on a 2006 baseline, the University achieved this goal ahead of schedule and, by fiscal 2020, had reduced its carbon footprint by 28%.
That didn’t happen overnight. It involved everything from switching light bulbs and installing light sensors to upgrading fans and chillers. Also on the list: introducing on-campus electric vehicle charging stations and providing public transit eco passes to commuters. Most recently, DU began a campus shuttle program that moves commuters from various campus locations to the nearby light rail station.
DU’s carbon-neutrality focus isn’t just about protecting the environment, King says. It’s also about embodying DU’s vision as a University dedicated to the public good.
“We know that our poor air quality affects all people. It’s an intergenerational effect on health and well-being in this region. We also know that the folks who are most affected by poor air quality in Denver are living in the areas that have been economically depressed over time,” he says. “The very nature of this work is, at its core, directly related to social justice. There are ways that we can look at carbon offsets that will actually be investments into justice in our community.”
Grace Rink, chief climate officer for the City and County of Denver, says that in looking beyond campus borders, DU has earned the commendation of the larger community.
“I applaud DU for recognizing the urgency of climate action and aiming to achieve its goal 20 years faster,” Rink says. “Not only is DU a major institution in our city, it is also educating future leaders who will take this urgency into their careers around the world.”
While much of this work will take place at the critically important institutional level, King and Haefner underscore the importance of involving the entire DU community, particularly students.
“If we are energizing our students, who will become leaders in this space, who will become leaders of companies, who will work for nonprofits that will further these goals—if we can inspire a generation of leaders by the work we do, then our reach is much further than our footprint ever will be,” King says.