“How worried are you about climate change?”

On Jan. 26, students and faculty filed into Stevenson Event Center and were immediately presented with this question. The answer was unanimous — everyone was afraid.  

This was the Decarbonization and Electrification Task Force’s (D&E) inaugural Town Hall. The agenda: communicate plans for the decarbonization of the UCSC campus and garner feedback from the community. Climate Coalition member and UCSC assistant professor Jason Samaha explained that this massive undertaking would require strategic planning to mitigate interruptions to campus activity. 

“It’s going to be a massive infrastructure project that’s going to affect everyone on campus in some way or another,” Samaha said. “We need to set an example for the other UC’s. If anyone is able to do it, it should be us.”

Sustainability director Elida Erickson and Associate Vice Chancellor Tony Cobb spearheaded the event. The presentation also featured an array of voices ranging from members of UCSC’s Climate Coalition to Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer. 

The concrete plans for decarbonizing UCSC are expected to be completed by June 2023, a little less than a year after the initial public pressure and creation of the D&E Task Force. In addition to specific ways the UC can reduce emissions, the fast action plan must also account for possible infrastructural developments, budgeting, and project feasibility.

“I think it’s really easy to get into that gloom and doom social media cycle of like, there’s nothing we can do,” said fifth-year Lila Roginski, Assistant Program Manager at the Student Environmental Center. “But as students, there’s so much we can do.” 

“As students, there’s so much we can do.”

— Lila Roginski

The D&E Task Force was initially created by Chancellor Cynthia Larive after receiving pressure from students in EnviroSlug and the Climate Coalition to address UCSC’s emission levels, which have increased sixteen percent since 1990. 

Campaigns led by the UCSC Climate Coalition culminated in last year’s climate rally on Earth Day, which demanded concrete administration plans to decarbonize the campus, among other things. 

Past efforts, such as former UC President Janet Napolitano’s 2013 push for the UC system to halt greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, have focused entirely on carbon neutrality through the use of offsets. While offsets ultimately do not limit our own emissions, they fund projects that reduce emissions elsewhere, such as  reforestation or renewable energy sources. 

Speaking at the event, Climate Coalition member Tramanh Mai explained that offsets are ultimately difficult to verify and don’t halt our own emissions at the source. Instead, she emphasized decarbonization entirely. 

“We can’t wait. We need to take action and do our part because, if we reach the tipping point, the effects of global warming will accelerate faster than our ability to solve it,” said Mai. 

Decarbonization, as the name suggests, refers to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, specifically carbon. At UCSC, this would mean halting fossil fuel consumption entirely. 

“Sixty-four percent of our natural gas emissions are in that cogeneration plant up on north campus, and it’s going to be a huge effort to find a technological solution to replace that and maintain resiliency,” said Water & Climate Action Manager Ellen Vaughan. 

The cogeneration plant runs on methane gas to produce heat and electricity for the school. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the gas has contributed significantly to the climate crisis. 

“Methane has accounted for roughly 30 percent of global warming since pre-industrial times,” UNEP stated in their Global Methane Assessment.

The effects of global climate change are evident locally with increases of extreme weather events such as droughts, wildfires, and floods. This has resulted in the displacement of vulnerable populations and a general lack of resources, both in Santa Cruz and nationally. 

“How much does it really cost to pollute?” Samaha said. “It’s not just the cost of burning fossil fuels. It’s also the health implications and the environmental implications of burning fossil fuels.”

Moving Forward

Potential ideas are being generated by examining data from UC Berkeley and UC Davis. Berkeley has led the charge to decarbonize their own campus, hoping to be the first carbon-free UC research institution. Their initiative is projected to cost anywhere from $800 million to $1 billion, with $250 million successfully secured from the state of California thus far. While UCSC’s project would be significantly less costly due to a smaller population, the project will ultimately require the procurement of large sums. 

Three members of UCSC’s Climate Coalition, Jason Samaha, Tramanh Mai, and Ian Cowan will remain on the D&E Task Force until the plan is complete. In addition to being involved in the overview of project development, they plan on inviting community engagement through upcoming town halls. 

“The plan is being developed now, I’m really confident that [the plan] will come out and we’ll have a number of reasonable options. On actually implementing the plan, I think ‘cautiously optimistic’ is the right word to use,” said Samaha.

Towards the end of Town Hall, Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer took the stage to make final remarks. She emphasized, above all, that students are the catalyst. 

“This is an incredibly heavy lift in every dimension, engineering, technical, legal, behavioral, managerial and financial. It is the challenge of our lives,” Kletzer said. “This would not have happened at the compressed timescale it did without the student push to say carbon neutrality is not enough.” 

The importance of student involvement was reiterated throughout the entire meeting, with several speakers attributing the entire initiative to the public pressure generated by student activism. 

The Climate Coalition hopes to keep this engagement up throughout the planning process. They encourage students interested in the Decarbonization and Electrification Task Force to visit their website to share potential ideas, get updates on progress, or ask questions related to the project. Similarly, they hope to increase the number of students attending the next Town Hall meeting, projected to occur in May. 

Speaking on her hopes for the future, Lila Roginski said, “The University will listen to us if we come united, as one student body.”