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University Crafts Climate Action Plan to Achieve Carbon Neutrality

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University Crafts Climate Action Plan to Achieve Carbon Neutrality

Sean Gogolin is a graduating senior at Bowling Green State University. There he studies Environmental Policy & Analysis, and looks to further his education in earning an Masters in Public Policy after graduation. Prior to his involvement with EcoWatch, he worked with Sierra Club last summer in Washington, DC.

Last month Bowling Green State University (BGSU) pledged its commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2040 in their newly crafted Climate Action Plan (CAP). The plan targets resource consumption and policy changes to guide the future decision-making process. In addition, the CAP outlines a plan of attack regarding four different sectors: energy use, transportation, solid waste management, and education and outreach development.

Climate Action Plan offers a solid framework to lead BGSU in making significant changes while working toward net carbon neutrality. Photo credit: Bowling Green State University

Talks over the CAP began last September and incorporated input from a number of students and faculty members. Undoubtedly, the cornerstone of the plan is the 2040 carbon neutrality date, which requires a 4 percent reduction in emissions per year. Establishing short- and long-term goals for each sector, the writers created a framework of achievable actions BGSU may take in order to become more sustainable. The CAP then calls for a Sustainability Master Plan: a plan that not only coincides with the university’s existing developmental blueprint, but would also establish a commitment to carbon neutrality by the university itself. The leading long-term goal is the establishment of a solar array that powers the majority of campus, coupled with geothermal energy facilities to heat and cool campus buildings. However, major negotiations must be worked out with the city in order to implement large-scale renewable energy development—which is what makes these actions long-term in scope.

Next, the CAP addresses university transportation. Aside from the creation of ride-sharing initiatives for commuting faculty and students, the plan outlined a policy that prohibited campus vehicles from idling, and gave preferential parking to carpoolers and fuel-efficient cars. More ambitious long-term policies call for a “fuel-efficient only” campus vehicle fleet.

Thirdly the Climate Action Plan states that in fiscal year 2013, BGSU produced approximately 100,000 lbs. of solid waste, a significant increase from 2012 levels. Thus, this sector offers the best opportunity to make significant changes in a relatively short amount of time. Aside from business as usual recycling, an assessment of all buildings is sought in order to improve overall recycling efforts. Coupled with the assessment, Campus Sustainability looks to internalize all recycling efforts and create a “Sustainability Purchasing Policy.” This would be a policy that guides BGSU in the acquisition of new building equipment, materials, supplies, etc.

Lastly, the CAP looks to increase awareness of climate change and sustainability in its own students. By adding a general education course focused on the causes and effects of climate change, the CAP wants to establish a campus-wide “eco-literacy.” Stemming off of this, a re-branding of the university is sought in order to establish both its commitment to climate action, but also its students.

Overall, the Climate Action Plan offers a solid framework to lead BGSU in making significant changes while working toward net carbon neutrality. However it is just that, a framework. It will be up to President Mazey and the Administration to take monumental steps forward in the name of campus-wide sustainability. With the support of the student body and the framers of the Climate Action Plan, BGSU has an opportunity to make real progress in addressing its own impact on the world.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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