LU Clean Energy Rally calls for commitment to carbon neutrality

Last Friday, members of many Lawrence environmental organizations came together for a Clean Energy Rally to bring awareness to the many shortcomings of the school’s response to climate change.  

Anders Hanhan, co-chair of the LUCC Sustainability Committee and one of the rally’s organizers, shared that the main purpose of the rally was to inform students who may not be as involved in environmental organizations about Lawrence’s performative sustainability. He pointed out that the university website features a sustainability page advertising such initiatives as the installation of hand dryers in the Warch Campus Center bathrooms, intended to reduce paper towel usage, and water usage meters in each building on campus that allow for water usage to be monitored; unfortunately, measures such as these are mere accessories to the real sustainability concern, which is reducing carbon emissions and moving to 100% renewable energy.  

The rally’s call to action asked students to email President Laurie Carter and LUCC President Kelsi Bryant and ask them to make institutional sustainability a priority. Specifically, students called on President Carter to sign the Second Nature agreement, thereby committing Lawrence to creating and carrying out a plan to completely decarbonize, and joining us with a network of other universities and academic institutions committed to the same goal. The most important part, according to Hanhan, is that “within one year of signing this agreement, you have to actively support a joint task force to create a plan to decarbonize, and that plan must be completed and submitted to your board or financial supervisory group — here at Lawrence it’s a board of trustees — and within three years of signing the agreement, you have to submit a plan on how to completely decarbonize to the board.”  

If this sounds like a large time-frame, that’s because it is, which is a major concern for students leading this movement. Four-year universities have short institutional memories, so Hanhan’s urgency is driven by the understanding that students are typically only here for four or five years, so this plan needs to be introduced and carried out before all of our current student leaders have graduated. This will ensure that the movement is not abandoned by future leadership before the plan to decarbonize can reach completion, but it means we need President Carter to sign the Second Nature agreement as soon as possible. 

Another facet of the urgency inherent to this movement is that the emissions goals being set in the U.S. are not ambitious enough. Hanhan pointed out that “if we at Lawrence want to set the example of setting a clean energy goal that the science dictates is necessary, that means we need to make big cuts to our emissions really fast, and when the process to get this started is already several years long, that’s eating way into the time of implementation.”  

Students are pushing for a commitment to go 100% carbon neutral by 2035, but Lawrence administration has given some pushback against this ambitious date. Due to the age of many Lawrence buildings, the necessary updates to these buildings will be much more expensive than if they had been built more recently; Briggs Hall, for example, will be much cheaper to update than Main Hall or Ormsby Hall. For this reason, administration prefers 2050 as a target to completely switch over to renewable energy, which doesn’t make much sense considering that the city of Appleton, from which Lawrence gets its power, has set 2040 as its goal to switch completely to renewable energy. Hopefully, having the support of LUCC will help pressure Lawrence administration to commit to a more ambitious date by which to go carbon neutral. Hanhan reflected that “LUCC has, in perspective, been a lot more dedicated to issues of sustainability and equity than the school has, and they’ve frankly been the ones telling the school when it’s time to do things, so that’s why we think it’s really important to have their buy-in.” 

Unfortunately, it’s frequently the case at Lawrence that student leadership is forced to drive institutional change because administration, for whatever reason, chooses to put that burden upon students instead of being leading the way in changing the institution for the better. LU Environmental Organization president Lauren Kelly shared that her organization “prides ourselves on being the ones who actually make change happen; we don’t just talk about change.” The LU Environmental Organization focuses on the power of individual action on a large scale through projects such as composting, battery and electronics recycling, and the sustainable menstruation project; these projects have all been student led, and none existed prior to the club’s start in 2018.  

Projects such as these have sought to make individual sustainable actions equitable; a menstrual cup can cost anywhere from $20-$40, for example, so providing that resource to menstruating students for free helped to remove a hurdle for students who were interested in using that product but hadn’t had the resources to try it before. In the case of compost, Kelly says “a lot of people come from backgrounds where they’ve never done their own compost, so there’s always the hurdle of people trying something different and there’s some miscommunication.” This sometimes results in items that can’t be composted ending up in bins, such as paper, meat, and dairy products, but the trade-off is worth it because the compost program engages students who wouldn’t necessarily give much thought to sustainability. Receiving funding from LUCC is the only way that these projects will be able to continue, and Kelly says she “would really like to see administration caring and putting money toward these things.”  

All the behind the scenes work that makes these sustainability projects happen takes a toll on student leaders. Kelly reports easily putting in about 20 hours a week on environmental work, adding, “I care a lot about this. This is the most meaningful thing I do here, and so I’m putting a lot of sacrifices into my schoolwork to make this possible. These changes can only happen so fast because of what I’m giving up from my other academic responsibilities.”  

Though this burden should not fall to them, student organizations do phenomenal work improving sustainability at Lawrence, from the individual level to the institutional level. However, Lawrence is still lagging far behind other institutions, and is likely one of the last colleges in Wisconsin to commit to a carbon neutrality agreement; even St. Norbert College in De Pere, which is a far less outwardly progressive institution, is committed to becoming emission free by 2050. The Lawrence website speaks of championing sustainability at Lawrence and beyond, but so far, there’s little evidence that administration wants to live up to this claim.