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Is Climate Neutrality in Indiana University’s Future?

Part three of a five-part series

PREVIOUSLY: Part I and Part II

NEXT: Part IV and Part V

On Tuesday, members of the student group Coal Free IU will meet with Indiana University Vice President Tom Morrison for the second time. While they are backing away from demanding IU eliminate coal from its heating plant, they will try to convince Morrison to pledge he’ll work toward climate neutrality and get President Michael McRobbie to become one of nearly 700 signatories of the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment.

But IU can’t begin to think about joining the climate neutrality club without a significant change in its stance toward burning coal on campus.

Rapper and DJ Biz Markie, known almost exclusively for his minor hit “Just a Friend” 20 years ago recently visited on Indiana University’s campus – in a biodiesel-fueled bus – to talk about green energy.

“Conserve energy. Clean Energy!” he yelled, while beatboxing. “I think a think a record might do it with a nice video. Just a straight video, clean video, clean energy. I think y’all would watch it with all your favorite stars,” he said.

The aim: make a complicated and unsexy issue appeal to young people. Markie made the same pitch at dozens of campuses across the country and says the key to solving America’s energy problems lies in the hands of the babies of Baby Boomers.

“Parents will never look at our culture and music. ‘Turn it down!’ It will never start with the parents. Parents will always be against something that we do, un less it’s the army, navy, you know what I mean?”

Lauren Kastner,  head of the student group Coal Free IU, sat on the panel with Markie. She says her group is now urging IU to commit to carbon neutrality, which she says is a much more difficult and complicated goal than the group’s original goal — eliminating coal from IU’s central heating plant.

But Bob Keuster, who runs the non-profit Center for Energy Research, Education and Service, says college campuses — especially ones as large as IU — will never not have an carbon footprint, so climate neutrality is a bit of misnomer.

“More and more folks are looking to universities as models of good behavior, as exemplars of what to do as places that do research on how to do something in a different way,” he said. “So the teeth then become peer pressure, the public spotlight, and although shame is not the foundation of the approach, there is dimension is lurking there. If you don’t follow up on what you say you’re going to do, you’re going to be a little embarrassed, if anything else,” Kuester said.

Is Neutrality Just a Concept?

Kuester says neutrality, at its best, will be accomplished by purchasing carbon credits to eliminate the final 10 or 20 percent of emissions. By agreeing to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, schools simply pledge they’ll work toward becoming carbon neutral. There are no rules, timelines or penalties for quitting or failing.

Kastner says IU, as a public research institution, has a duty to experiment and find solutions to issues such as these.

IU Sustainability Director Bill Brown agrees, saying the university’s behavior cannot be detached from students’ educations about climate change.

“If there’s a disconnect between research and curriculum and operations then the message is not as strong. If, for example, you’re teaching about energy efficiency in the classroom but you’re not practicing it on campus it loses some of its power and the message is not as long lasting at it could be,” Brown said.

But Vice President Tom Morrison but says any step IU eventually decides to take toward improving its environmental practices must be methodical and sure-footed…and could take many decades.

“We don’t have the benefit of experimentation to say let’s try this and three years later go, ‘Whoops! That didn’t work.’ And then spend millions and millions of dollars again to do something different. We don’t get that luxury,” Morrison said. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers of the state of Indiana.”

To Kastner, that sounds like an excuse for inaction…

“They’re buying it, they’re burning it. That’s as far as they see. That’s as far as they want to see,” she said.

Sixty college campuses have their own coal plants, yet fewer than a handful have announced plans to phase them out. But Ball State University is one of them. The school has four old coal-fired boilers it will shut down after a massive geothermal heating project is complete in two years.

Tom Morrison helped plan Ball State’s geothermal project – the largest in the country – before coming to IU.  He says a similar plan is not an option for IU, as it sits atop too much limestone.

Despite not signing the Climate Commitment, the latest draft of IU’s official Master Plan, which has been approved by its trustees, calls for a move toward climate neutrality.

On Wednesday we’ll look at IU’s Master Plan and its upcoming integrated energy master plan. If both are taken as courses of action, IU will have to significantly alter how it operates in order to give itself any chance of becoming climate neutral.

PREVIOUSLY: Part I and Part II

NEXT: Part IV and Part V

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