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In February 2020, the University of Pittsburgh announced its goal to go carbon neutral by 2037 — 13 years sooner than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s call for global carbon neutrality. A new report, the Pitt Climate Action Plan, spells out how the University will achieve that goal through investments in clean energy, transportation, efficiency and other areas.
Pitt has already made substantial progress in reducing its carbon footprint: The most recent greenhouse gas inventory showed a 32% decrease in emissions between 2008 and 2020, thanks in part to a shift to cleaner steam plants and ongoing energy efficiency projects in campus buildings.
“The Pitt Climate Action Plan lays out our institutional climate action strategy for the University community and details how they can get involved,” said Pitt Director of Sustainability Aurora Sharrard.
The 2037 goal was selected using science-based criteria, and it also happens to be the 250th anniversary of the University’s founding.
“A lot of higher education institutions have set a 2050 goal,” said Sharrard, who chairs the Carbon Commitment Committee of the Chancellor’s Advisory Council on Sustainability responsible for compiling the plan. “What 2037 does for Pitt is create a sense of urgency to address the climate emergency,” while also allowing for the longer-term planning necessary to pursue sustainable solutions.
With that date in mind, the committee met with Pitt students, faculty and staff, building on years of University-level strategic planning, including the Plan for Pitt and the Institutional Master Plan. The resulting climate action plan, Sharrard explained, has goals that extend far beyond reducing Pitt’s carbon footprint.
“The Pitt Climate Action Plan reflects two years of work by many community members to figure out how our journey to carbon neutrality can enhance our academic mission, advance equitable outcomes and embed economic resilience both at Pitt and in the region,” she said.
As spelled out in the report, that path will rely upon four pillars. Planned investments in energy efficiency will decrease the use of utilities on campus, while investments in electricity generation, including agreements for local hydroelectric and solar power that are already underway, will help ensure that the energy the University does consume is clean.
“With our two power purchasing agreements for local renewable electricity, we’re ensuring that those jobs, that opportunity, stays in and benefits the region,” Sharrard said.
Shifts in transportation and commuting will account for another portion of the University’s reduction in carbon budget, with the remainder handled through carbon insets and offsets — investments in projects that decrease greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
By 2037, all of Pitt’s efforts will add up to a net reduction in annual emissions equivalent to taking more than 45,000 cars off the road.
The committee will update the Pitt Climate Action Plan every five years, detailing the ongoing work toward carbon neutrality at Pitt. This transparency — and getting the plan out in the public domain — is one way that Pitt is leading the way on the climate, Sharrard said.
“We have a responsibility to our larger communities, both in Pittsburgh and our regional campuses, to ensure that we’re communicating what we’re doing as a thought and practice leader to help other institutions find their own way,” she said. “The global call is for carbon neutrality by 2050. It’s going to take a lot more than just us to get there.”
— Patrick Monahan