NYU’s Chief Sustainability Officer Cecil Scheib recently outlined the reality of achieving sustainability goals at NYU: in order for them to be accepted, they must be good for business.
“NYU’s sustainability program, overwhelmingly, has a fantastic business case,” Scheib said, acknowledging that on the other hand, actions “that are just the right thing to do” ultimately don’t happen often, even though he tries to push for them. At the same time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C says “without societal transformation […] pathways to limiting warming to 1.5°C and achieving sustainable development will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.” While the report was targeted toward countries and governments, the recommendations given should also be considered by all, including our university.
NYU is an international institution with students, resources and investments all around the world. Its actions — or lack thereof — have a concrete impact on our environment, exacerbated by our global reach and sheer size. And while our university has made significant progress toward a more sustainable future, it continues to evade pervasive problems and ignore important solutions, acting instead by its financial imperative.
Scheib is right to be proud of what he’s accomplished so far, especially the effort to reduce the university’s emissions by more than one third. And even though his Climate Action Plan, most notably the goal of carbon neutrality by 2040, is commendable — albeit at a 10-year lag from the target date set by the IPCC — students have demanded more action. In April, the University Senate passed “The Resolution for Decarbonization” and is awaiting its implementation by the university. Some of the necessarily substantial proposals include complete divestment from fossil fuels and fracking, which would require the university to use 100% renewable energy by 2040, as opposed to just achieving carbon neutrality.
In a November interview, Scheib told WSN that the resoluion is “aspirational” but “reasonable.” While it’s reassuring to know that Scheib intends to use the resolution as a guide, the university has made no public statement as to whether or not all the goals of the resolution will actually be incorporated and its impact remains unclear. In 2016, a similar resolution was passed by student government but ultimately rejected by the Board of Trustees — President Andrew Hamilton and Board Chair William Berkeley publicly condemned the resolution. According to Scheib, it appears that the university’s position on this has changed, but the reality is that it was only forced to accept the this vision once New York state made these targets law for the entire state by 2050.
NYU was, and continues to be, evasive about its plans to implement the goals of the resolution. It’s worrisome that the university was forced to adopt its current position of acceptance by legislation, dragging its feet and openly attacking similar earlier proposals.
Scheib separates his goals into three categories: cost reductions which save money, alternative spending which saves money and moral imperatives with no monetary benefit. If the university wants to be a leader in the fight for a more sustainable future, it must do a better job at meeting goals in all three areas, not just the ones that help its profit margin.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Dec. 2, 2019 print edition. Email Cole Stallone at [email protected]