Is Northeastern doing enough to fight climate change?

Photo (cc) 2008 by David Fox

With the effects of climate change looming, colleges and universities across the country are doing what they can to help reduce their carbon footprint and create greener campuses. In Boston, Northeastern University has taken up its own initiatives to be more eco-friendly.

This year alone the university earmarked $45 million in funding for sustainability research, according to Northeastern’s website. And it pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent before 2050.

But despite the enterprising actions and the school’s “pursuit of a sustainable future,” as the website puts it, some students believe there has been an absence of concrete administrative activities.

“The efforts exist, but they are not to their potential,” said Dylan Balcom, vice-president elect for the Student Government Association and chairman of the Renewable Energy Initiatives Board.

Balcom, a second-year neuroscience major, said that less than 1 percent of the school energy comes from renewable resources. The only place on campus that uses renewable energy, he added, is the Curry Student Center, which uses antiquated solar panel models from the late ’90s.

“If 99 percent of our day goes to inefficient energy, we are not taking the proper steps,” he said.

In addition, Northeastern has come under scrutiny for its ties to ExxonMobil — an American multinational oil and gas corporation — including having a former Exxon executive, Edward Galante, on the school’s board of trustees. And last year’s Paradise Paper documents revealed that the school and several other universities have invested part of their endowments in fossil fuels via an offshore hedge fund, despite promoting environmental sustainability.

With a conflicting effort from the school’s administration, Northeastern students and faculty are taking individual actions to lower their carbon footprint. Lisa Koch, the assistant dean of engineering and computer technology, said her department installed computer systems that are more energy-efficient and longer lasting.

Patrick Milne, a second-year computer science major, recycles weekly. And Gabriel Sher, a first-year mathematics major, said she is “very conscious about littering and making sure that waste goes into the appropriate receptacle.”

Within Northeastern, Carol Rosskam, the sustainability program manager, is responsible for ensuring that the university does all it can to be green. But given that she is only person currently working in the office, she must be “a one-woman force trying to change an institutional issue,” said Dylan Balcom.

“A large portion if not all change that makes Northeastern a more climate-aware institution has come from student advocacy groups or Carol,” he said.  “So, it hasn’t come from a higher place — it comes from a one-woman show.”

But regardless of those varied opinions, Northeastern maintains a commitment to sustainability and climate-change mitigation. In 2013, Northeastern was ranked the greenest campus in America by GreenMetric, which classifies higher education institutions based on campus sustainability and eco-friendly university management.

And last year, the university hosted the 10th annual Clinton Global Initiative to discuss and develop effective solutions towards global and environmental issues.

“We are thrilled to work with Northeastern in bringing together students from all 50 states and around the world to make a meaningful and lasting difference for their communities and the world around us,” said Clinton Foundation president Donna Shalala at the event.

Story by Max Schochet with reporting by Schochet, Kaela Anderson, Chris Butler, Zachary Carmosino, José da Silva, Valeriia Holub, Amanda LaRiviere, Jenna Li, Nikki Naquin, Matilda Weiler, Peter Worzala and Claire Wu.

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