More than 600 colleges and universities have signed the American Colleges and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment since 2007, a pledge to eliminate carbon emissions from campus operations by 2050. Also, Towson recently updated its Climate Action Plan, which now describes 63 actions the university will take to reach that goal.
Why is the university doing this? There are three answers to this question: 2, 350, and 80.
2 degrees. A few years ago in Copenhagen, the United Nations Convention on Climate Change determined that an increase of 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, from pre-industrial levels is the maximum amount of global warming that could be tolerated. Global temperatures have risen almost 1.2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times, and scientists assert that we are well on our way to above the 2 degrees Celsius if we continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate. We have seen devastating impacts around the world from just 1 degree of warming in the last few years. Last year was the hottest year on record in the United States, and nine of the ten hottest years on global record were after 2000.
Warmer temperatures are the cause of the proliferation and the spreading of pests and diseases. Melting glaciers and droughts lead to water shortages in many parts of the world. Agricultural output is threatened, which is a cause for concern considering that the need to feed an expanding population continues to grow. Hurricane Sandy, the drought in the Midwest, and forest fires in California and Colorado are just a few examples of the way that climate change affects all of us.
Why is 2 degrees the limit? Climate change is not a linear process; nature often has tipping points. Ice and snow melt when the temperature rises above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Warmer ocean waters absorb less carbon dioxide, which in turn leaves more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; this excess gas leads to more warming. Warmer air holds water vapor, which warms the atmosphere even more. The fact that these tipping points exist—and that the effects of going beyond these tipping points cannot be reversed—is terrifying and provides renewed incentive for going green.
350 parts per million is the maximum concentration of carbon dioxide that scientists deem safe to have in the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was around 275 parts per million at the beginning of human civilization. That number has steadily risen and is now at 392 parts per million Last summer the CO2 concentration in the arctic hit 400 parts per million, 50 ppm above the safe limit. We need to move our carbon bank account out of the red, and the fact that we can’t even put a cap on current emissions is a cause for concern.
80 percent is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that must be reduced to stay below the threshold of 350 parts per million and below two degrees Celsius. Yes–that number is correct– 80 percent worldwide. Scientists say that this percentage needs to be reduced by 2050. The United States and other countries have managed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in the past few years, but this reduction is offset by the rise in emissions from countries such as China and India.
In total, global emissions increased 3 percent in 2011 and are expected to jump another 2.6 percent in 2012. The ambitious goals set by Towson’s Climate Commitment are not arbitrary; they are consistent with what scientists tell us is necessary to help reverse the effects of global warming.
Why does higher education need to lead the climate change initiative? As autonomous entities that consume large amounts of natural resources, universities can have a great impact on the environment by reducing emissions from their own operations.
However, the efforts of universities to limit their own contributions to pollution are not the only measure that can be taken to positively impact the environment. Colleges can model change for the rest of society and can utilize their pools of resources to reach and educate the public about going green.
From alternative transportation to energy conservation, many options are available at Towson to help you reduce Towson’s environmental footprint. You can begin by liking our Facebook page, which provides updates of events and tips on being sustainable. You can also subscribe to the weekly Go Green Newsletter to receive updates regarding Towson’s sustainability events and programs.
TU’s Go Green website is a great resource that provides information about what TU is doing to go green and provides options that can help you get involved as soon as possible.