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After slowing momentum, UO is adjusting its Climate Action Plan

In 2007, former University of Oregon President David Frohnmayer signed the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, along with what is now over 650 U.S. colleges and universities, pledging to set goals to move toward net zero greenhouse gas emissions, the main cause of climate change. It was from this that the 2010 Climate Action Plan was born. The CAP laid out a plan to reduce UO’s emissions to zero by 2050.

 The university is now only a year away from its 2020 checkpoint: 10 percent less than the estimated 1990 levels. But the 1990 levels were an educated guess of what emissions were back then, and without any actual data to support this, comparing real measurements to this hypothetical proved problematic. The university will release an updated action plan on Friday, which will use the actual 2010 emissions number as the baseline instead.

“Basically, the Climate Action Plan was based on metrics that were unattainable and not enough information existed to really benchmark against them accurately,” said Taylor McHolm, director of the Student Sustainability Center. “So it called to reduce emissions based on 1990 levels, but the university just doesn’t have data from 1990.”

 As for more recent years recorded, Second Nature — a site UO and other universities reported emissions levels to — showed a drastic increase in emissions in 2013. Since 2011, though, UO reported to both Second Nature and Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Ranking System and soon found it was redundant to report to both sites. So after 2014, the university dropped off Second Nature’s radar.

It’s hard to say definitively how 2018 compares to 2014, but STARS records on UO show a substantial drop in emissions from 2014 to 2017. It’s unclear what caused this drop specifically.

Director of Sustainability Steve Mital — who supervised the original CAP’s creation — said that CAP has made tangible changes to the university’s emissions trajectories. After the plan was implemented, the university moved to establish the Oregon Model for Sustainable Development in 2011. The model required all new construction to be built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold Certification standards, which requires buildings to be 35 percent more energy efficient than the 2014 minimum standards. OMSD also stated that old buildings must reduce energy consumption to make up for any new energy created by new buildings.

Mital also said that the spike in emissions around 2013 was an anomaly and that since then, the emissions levels have dropped back down to 2010 levels, despite the university building about 20 percent more facilities since then. So even though UO isn’t in line to hit the original 2020 goal, the university has spent a lot of money to increase the campus’s sustainable development.

Additionally, Mital said that most universities redraft their climate action plans in a ten-year cycle. Due to a student push, UO follows an eight-year redrafting schedule.

“There was a recognition on all parts that the targets set on CAP 1.0 were lacking some data to suggest what we could realistically achieve, and it was becoming more clear to us that we needed to update, so to be based on a real baseline and have our reductions coincide with real plans,” Mital said.

UO emissions breakdown

About 40 percent of UO’s emissions come from energy generation and 57 percent come from transportation.

Eugene Water and Electric Board supplies 60 percent of the energy used to light and cool UO’s main Eugene campus. EWEB energy is made up of 93 percent renewable energy (primarily hydropower) and 7 percent fossil fuels.

The university also has solar panels on five buildings, as well as solar water heaters on the roofs of three others. These only account for a small amount of overall energy consumption on campus.

The UO Central Power Station, a natural gas plant that lies across Franklin Boulevard from the UO main campus, accounts for the rest of the campus’s energy consumption. Natural gas, which breaks down methane into CO2 and water, produces three-times less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels.

Hardenbrook knows that natural gas is still not ideal and is further contributing to man-made climate change. He said, “there’s always an ecological impact,” and moving to renewable energy completely will cost millions of dollars. As of now, the boilers could work for another 30 to 40 years.

 “We need to establish what the intrinsic value is for carbon,” Hardenbrook said. In other words, if a carbon tax made it more expensive to burn natural gas, institutions might be more enticed to make the change. But for now, natural gas is cheap.

The transportation side of UO’s emissions is more difficult because what forms of transportation are available are, to some extent, out of the university’s control. UO-sponsored travel means everything from paying for math professors to go to an annual mathematics conference in Europe to the Ducks football team traveling to a Bowl Game halfway across the nation.

However, more sustainable methods of travel, like taking public transportation over individuals driving or flying to conferences and event, could curb UO’s carbon emissions in this sector.


Enter CAP 2.0

Noticing a slowdown in the original momentum toward fulfilling CAP goals, CJL formed the CAP 2.0 campaign in 2017 to push UO to make a new plan with stricter guidelines for the university to follow. They submitted an advisory measure in the 2018 ASUO ballot, asking students if they think UO should follow through with CAP to reduce carbon emissions. Of the 1,309 students who voted, 94.7 percent said yes.

 Around the same time, Mital, who was involved in the CAP 2.0 creation, reached out to McHolm to ask if he could get a student group together to learn about CAP 2.0, which McHolm and Brendan Adamczyk, chair of the Student Sustainability Network, arranged. (Adamczyk also serves as a co-director of Climate Justice League – a UO student-run environmental club.)

Then the 2018 International Panel on Climate Change’s latest report was released on November 23, 2018. Suddenly leveling off emissions needed to happen by 2030, not 2050.

“On campus, we’re working with the best available science, and that’s what the best available science says: It’s changed in the past couple years,” Adamczyk said. “The date [to level off emissions] was originally 2050, then it was 2040 and now it’s 2030.”

So CJL and the SSC worked together to draft a proposed addendum, which McHolm and Adamczyk presented to UO President Michael Schill in January. The proposal cited the measure and the IPCC report and was signed by 316 students, staff and faculty.

UO political science professor Ron Mitchell — head of the Climate Change Research Group and Symposium — said the university’s work to reduce emissions isn’t fruitless: “UO emission reductions a) make real, even if small, contribution to actually reducing greenhouse gases and, hence, climate change; b) demonstrate strong leadership to the local, state and national community, providing a role model for others to follow; and c) both engage and teach students about how to identify and respond effectively to the global problems they will face once they graduate.”

The proposal urged UO to follow the IPCC’s recommendation to reduce its carbon emissions by 45 percent of what they were in 2010 by 2030, with a later goal of reaching the original target of carbon neutrality by 2050. It also recommended UO to increase educational and research opportunities on climate change topics and to establish a formal board of students, faculty and staff — connected to the Office of Sustainability — that would hold the university accountable for reaching the CAP 2.0 goals.

Schill and Mital agreed to meet with McHolm and Adamczyk on April 15 to discuss plans to produce a CAP 2.0, which would provide stricter guidelines for the university to follow.

“[Schill] was very upfront and transparent about the fact that he wasn’t going to make a commitment that sounded really good but ultimately wasn’t feasible,” McHolm said.


What’s Next

The University of Oregon is expected to rack up an $8 million deficit at the end of this fiscal year, and the deficit is expected to add another $23.5 million next fiscal year, according toKEZI. Because of this, President Schill remained hesitant in the CAP 2.0 April meeting to reach any concrete decisions regarding the university’s plan to reduce its GHG emissions.

“It’s a difficult time to make new commitments given the financial stresses the institution is facing, but this is an important issue,” Schill said. “We have to keep at it.”

This is what he did say verbatim:


  1. I will elevate our work on emissions management by annually reporting our progress against CAP 2.0 commitments to the UO community.

  2. Similarly, I will ask our Board secretary to put emissions management on the Board of Trustees’ Finance and/or Facilities committee agendas.

  3. When appropriate, I will ask our VP for Finance and Administration to convene a committee comprised of faculty, staff, and students to review progress on CAP 2.0 and contemplate actions to be included in CAP 3.0.

  4. I am committed to increasing support for climate change education and preparing students for careers responding to its many challenges.

  5. Similarly, I am committed to increasing our capacity to contribute to climate change-related research.

  6. Finally, I recognize that the Oregon legislature is currently contemplatingHB2020, a cap-and-trade bill that would regulate up to 80 percent of all carbon emissions in Oregon. If the bill becomes law, I will ask staff to study and make a recommendation regarding UO volunteering to become a covered entity.


Later, the administration said they plan to publish CAP 2.0 on Friday. The Emerald plans to provide a thorough breakdown of the new plan.

Possible solutions

Switching from natural gas to renewable energy is hypothetically the simplest option to drop 40 percent of UO’s emissions. CJL argues that it won’t be as big of an infrastructure overhaul as one might think. According to CJL, it would just require switching the natural gas boilers at the Central Power Station to electric boilers. From there, they can get the energy for that from EWEB. They also support UO investing in a carbon tax for airfare every time someone travels on behalf of the school.

If for some reason the university decides it wants to invest in its own renewable energy sources, the Renewable Energy Atlas shows that both on and off-shore wind farms are the most effective form of renewable energy in the Pacific Northwest. Land-based wind farms require battery storage to keep energy flow to buildings consistent – energy collected and saved during energy surpluses and saved energy used during wind deluges. (More effective forms of batteries is also a great space for further research!) Offshore wind doesn’t require any battery system because wind over the ocean is much more consistent.

For travel, the university could encourage busing, carpooling, using public transportation over driving alone, yet driving uses up less energy than flying. Video calling into meetings uses much less energy than actually traveling to locations.

Finally, the Living Building Challenge might provide stricter guidelines for building and renovating buildings. Under their guidelines, buildings actually end up making energy more than using it. The nearest building that adheres to these codes is Painters Hall at Pringle Creek Community in Salem.

“Universities should lead the way in achieving climate action and zero emissions,” Wood said. “Climate security is essential to our students’ future and should be a priority across campuses.”

Disclaimer: Becky Hoag was a part of Climate Justice League from 2016 to 2017 and the Student Sustainability Network from 2016 to 2018.

Corrections: The original article misstated that methane is released during the natural gas process. Rather, carbon dioxide is just released as methane is converted to CO2 and water. Additionally, the LEED certification requires buildings to be 35 percent more efficient than the 2014 minimum standards, not decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent.

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