UC Davis, long recognized as a leader in environmental sustainability, is taking a bold first step to confront the sizable carbon emissions that result from its own daily operations and contribute to the climate crisis. The campus has officially announced that it is drawing up concrete plans to electrify both of its campuses with the goal to eliminate the use of fossil fuels.
In October 2020, an informal group of UCD students, faculty, staff, and alumni met with Chancellor Gary May and other campus officials to press for a commitment to go fossil-fuel free, eventually resulting in the creation of a new Campus Advisory Committee on Sustainability. Branding itself Fossil Free UCD, the group met with Chancellor May again in December 2021 and presented a petition signed by over 1300 UCD affiliates, including more than 260 faculty, 795 students, and 135 alumni. The petition called for the Chancellor and other UC Davis leaders to commit to ending the use of fossil fuels as a source of energy for UCD’s campuses by 2030, and to develop a plan for doing so in 2022.
As members of this group, we are motivated by three ideas: 1) the urgency of acting now to try to avert the worst local and global consequences of global heating, including wildfires, extreme rainfall, extreme heat, hurricanes, drought, flooding, sea level rise, damaged ecosystems, species extinction, and changed disease vectors, 2) UCD’s core missions of education, research, and service to local and global communities and its longstanding commitment to environmental sustainability, and 3) UCD’s power and obligation to lead and inspire others to decarbonize rapidly. Other universities are also taking steps to eliminate fossil fuels in this way, including Stanford, Oberlin, and Ball State.
We acknowledge that UCD has taken important steps toward electrification already. The Big Shift project is possibly the most notable, which is currently underway to replace an aging steam-based heating system to a more efficient system that uses hot water and can be powered by electricity. However, UC Davis is currently still using fracked methane for its heating and cooling needs and will need to switch this to renewable electricity it purchases or generates on site. The University of California system is still pursuing an outdated Carbon Neutrality Initiative that relies on purchasing offsets after 2025 to atone for on-campus emissions. Carbon offsets only shift our burden of action to others – at best – and at worst result in no net reduction in emissions if they duplicate actions that would have happened anyway
Electrifying the campus will require significant strategic investments, but will in the long run help avoid crippling economic, health, and equity costs of climate disasters. We are unfortunately well past the time when partial measures can be helpful; only bold and swift action has any hope of preventing global temperature increases to remain below 2 degrees Celsius.
We were pleased when, shortly after our December meeting, Chancellor May committed to a plan to end UCD’s fossil fuel use by directing the aforementioned Campus Advisory Committee on Sustainability (CACS) to develop a fossil-free plan by December 31, 2022 – a plan that would be an important tool to drive decisions and projects at UC Davis. The Chancellor stopped short of agreeing to a 2030 goal to decarbonize UCD, wanting to wait for CACS to complete its plans before committing. With Fossil Free UCD’s Professor Mark Huising serving as a member of CACS, we hope to continue to provide inspiration and input into the campus’s decarbonization plan.
While commitment to developing a plan to make UCD fossil free is certainly a huge first step, of course our true goal will only be realized if the plan is implemented. UC Davis can be a leader in sustainability yet again, inspiring other institutions and universities throughout the country to address their carbon emissions. UC Davis would signal that climate science matters in the real world, with implications for large-scale international policies.
We are grateful that UCD has recognized that it needs to embark on a path toward a fossil fuel free future. However, the real work to make this plan a reality within a timeframe that reflects the urgency of our climate emergency is only just starting. If you would like to sign our petition, learn more about our ongoing efforts, or join our cause, please see our website at https://fossilfreeucd.org/