4/27/20 College Carbon Neutrality

On April 22, Purdue released its Sustainability Master Plan that outlines sustainability goals for the campus over the next five years. It details goals for five categories: energy, water, materials, buildings and grounds.

Relegated to online spaces, thousands of local students signed a petition and endorsed a letter sent to Purdue President Mitch Daniels on Wednesday urging him to commit the University to carbon neutrality by 2030.

The letter, drafted by incoming Purdue junior Mason Merkel in his role as leader of West Lafayette Students for Climate Action, demands that Purdue administrators "engage with large-scale climate action planning efforts" in coordination with local government officials.

Merkel references a "Regional Climate Action and Adaptation Plan" being developed by West Lafayette, Lafayette and Tippecanoe County officials, but says the plan will fail without cooperation by Purdue.

"I worked for the Office of Sustainability, and now it’s my responsibility as a citizen to fight for these changes," Merkel said in a statement to The Exponent. "Climate change threatens us socially, economically and existentially."

Other requests Merkel lists in the document are for Purdue to create a "campus-wide sustainability office" composed of students, researchers and faculty members to pursue a 100% reduction in carbon emissions.

Merkel said in an interview that the current sustainability office is listed as part of Purdue's Physical Facilities department, limiting its input into decisions made higher in the University's administrative hierarchy. The office is also understaffed and under-resourced, he added.

"This on-campus office will tackle sustainability better than the current understaffed office that is limited to facilities," the letter reads.

The letter to Daniels compiles the voices of "over 8,000 Purdue students across 47 student organizations," it reads. The names of nearly 50 student organizations are listed at the end, ranging from Purdue Student Government to the Student Sustainability Council to a slew of political clubs.

Most of the nine West Lafayette city councilors are also included in the endorsements, part of Merkel's effort to broaden the initiative to include voices from around the city. State Rep. for West Lafayette Chris Campbell, Democrat, and State Senator for Tippecanoe County Ron Alting, Republican, each signed their name.

Purdue professor of engineering education Alice Pawley appears to be the only professor to have signed her endorsement of the document.

"I’m going to be on the University sustainability committee this fall," Pawley wrote in an email, "so it seems very relevant to me."

Daniels did not respond to the Exponent's requests for comment on whether he'd read the letter as of Thursday afternoon.

Previous Exponent reporting shows that Purdue is behind universities such as Indiana University and Ball State University in its pursuit of carbon neutrality, which is defined as a net-zero carbon footprint an institution obtains either by offsetting or eliminating its carbon emissions.

The University released its Sustainability Master Plan in late April that commits campus to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from Wade Power Plant, but makes no direct commitment to pursue carbon neutrality.

Michael Gulich, director of campus planning and sustainability, told The Exponent in April that the master plan pursues short-term, realistic goals. Addressing carbon neutrality is outside the scope of the current plan, he said.

“It's a really large undertaking,” Gulich said. “A big question with that is what would that take and what would that cost. Is the economics there? We haven't dug into that.”

A petition calling for carbon neutrality by 2030 that Merkel started in the spring had 1,400 signatures when Purdue released its master plan. That same petition approached 2,000 signatures as of Thursday as part of Merkel's latest initiative.

To bolster his updated request, Merkel aimed to work with city officials to organize a separate letter sent to Daniels on behalf of local governments, he said. As of Thursday afternoon, that second letter had not been sent.

West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis said more time is needed to draft a plan that Purdue understands is collaborative, not "threatening."

"We're all working toward carbon neutrality but it is a long, long path that is gonna require a great deal of time, money and creativity and we're not there yet," Dennis said. "Encouraging it is something we can all do, but it's gonna take more than enthusiasm to get this done."

The city will focus on more easily obtainable goals, he said, ones without timeframes that expire within a decade. He cited efforts in coordination with Purdue to reduce the city's carbon footprint, ensure new campus buildings are energy-efficient and encourage the use of bicycles.

"If we're gonna collaborate on something it needs to be something realistic," he said, "something that we can achieve."

Merkel's group, West Lafayette Students for Climate Action, includes Purdue students and local high schoolers.

Eight West Lafayette High School students, several of which are in WLSCA, spearheaded efforts in October to encourage the West Lafayette city council to pass a resolution to reduce carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency.

Annabel Prokopy, a high school student who encouraged the council to pass the resolution and organized several climate strikes last year, is part of the group that addressed the letter to Daniels. Her message, as written in a press release sent to The Exponent: Without Purdue, meaningful progress won't happen.

"Climate action cannot be simply ignored by one entity. In order to reach the goals that have been set to save our planet, we have to be all hands on deck," Prokopy said.

"As a teen activist, I am seeing my future being taken away by the refusal to take urgent action," she added. "That is something that can be changed if Purdue steps up and takes that action."

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