Professor Robert Howarth spoke to the University Assembly Oct. 18 about the recently released Senior Leaders Climate Action Group report on options and associated costs for achieving a carbon-neutral campus by 2035.
Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology and a member of the group, said the latest global warming data – and scientific and practical reasoning – suggest action needs to be taken worldwide. “The planet is getting warmer,” he said. “March of 2016 was the warmest March ever. September 2016 was the warmest September ever. The planet is warming faster than any climate model is predicting.”
Cornell, he said, is moving rapidly toward defining solutions. According to the climate action report, the university needs to meet all campus electricity demand through renewable resources, and evaluate Earth Source Heat and ground source heat pumps as heating solutions. “Geothermal Earth Source Heat is the most promising technology for heating the campus in our climate,” he said.
Reaching the carbon-neutrality goal will be an expensive proposition. Howarth noted that, while implementing the report’s heating and energy options will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, staying with the status quo may be among the most expensive options.
The report, which factors in the social cost of carbon and whether options meet university priorities, also uses a methodology developed by Howarth to account for the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from methane leakage in natural gas use. If the university stayed with the status quo, carbon offset fees would be prohibitively expensive.
The least expensive option when factoring in methane leakage – a combination of Earth Source Heat, and wind, water and solar projects, supplemented by biomass energy – has an initial $700 million outlay, with annual operating costs of $24 million, annualized capital costs of $47 million and zero dollars in yearly carbon offset fees. The university is exploring partnerships and external funding sources to help defray the initial capital costs.
If Earth Source Heat is found not to be viable, Howarth said, the university will assess options for using ground-source heat pumps and review other renewable options.
In the past decade, Cornell has reduced its carbon dioxide output by about 30 percent, Howarth said. According to the report, the university’s current carbon footprint is about 214,000 metric tons annually, and 794,000 metric tons annually when factoring in methane leakage.
Howarth said that the cumulative effect of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was relatively stable until 2010. “It has exploded since then. [Methane] is why the planet is warming as fast as it is now. … It’s an added reason for us to no longer use natural gas, and we need to wean ourselves from it as quickly as we can.”
A Cornell community forum is set for Oct. 31, and committee representatives are giving presentions about the report at each of the assemblies meetings. The Employee Assembly heard a presentation Oct. 19, and the Student Assembly will hear it Oct. 20 at 4:50 p.m., followed by the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, Oct. 24 at 5:30 p.m. in Bache Auditorium, Malott Hall, and faculty Senate, Nov. 9, at 3:30 p.m., 120 Physical Sciences Building.
This article was originally published in the Cornell Chronicle.