One would be hard-pressed to find a college or university that doesn’t claim to value sustainability. To attract both students and donors, institutions have to appear to be on the most progressive edge of any pressing issue. Sustainability efforts are no exception, and indeed, Pomona College, like any other educational institution, increasingly lauds its own green accomplishments. It has built residence halls certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, and implemented solar panels; it has earned itself a spot on the Princeton Review’s Green Honor Roll for 2014. Yet have we actually been making progress?
While it is true that the Pomona administration has implemented many features that are ostensibly green, it seems to feel no obligation to draw attention to its other developments that may cancel out any progress it is making elsewhere. For example, the newly constructed Sontag and Pomona Halls have drawn much attention and praise for their use of sustainable features and high-tech energy-saving systems. However, as the perpetually illuminated television screens in these dorms can inform us, the nifty array of solar panels on their roofs provide only a small fraction of the electricity these luxurious air-conditioned buildings consume. In fact, compared to other residence halls, particularly those without air conditioning and many refrigerators, these ones consume a fairly large amount of energy.
Our problem, then, stems from the fact that collegiate institutions are stuck in what is effectively a sustainability stalemate. Every administration wants to become sustainable—and then tout that sustainability—without actually having to make genuine compromises or concessions. We see effort directed toward projects that are easy to publicize, features that make the college look good. But we don’t see the college trying to reduce water consumption or air conditioning use, because that would make our campus less pleasing to the eye, or our residence halls less desirable to live in for several years. We have therefore become quite proficient in evading accountability for the actions we take that move us further away from that perfect sustainability we claim to seek.
This is why Pomona’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 is a significant step forward. The administration has set a definitive goal that can be quantifiably measured so we can no longer mask the emissions of which we’re not so proud. Any accomplishments we make can no longer be offset by hypocritical luxuries that we implement without revealing the extent of their impact. This is the comprehensive accountability that Pomona needs to make real progress.
It is true that the proposal is vague.The only information students have received is that we now have a goal of carbon neutrality that the administration has committed to meet by 2030. There is a lot of work that needs to happen between now and then, and without truly aggressive action, that goal won’t be achieved. But since Pomona has made a public commitment to follow through with carbon neutrality, it cannot afford to fail. What the administration stands to lose in reputation and appeal to donors and prospective students if the proposal fizzles out is, finally, greater than the risk it faces by taking meaningful steps—including some sacrifices—to achieve sustainability.
One may criticize the pledge by noting that it only addresses carbon emissions and ignores other critical facets of sustainability, such as water consumption and waste. It also overlooks the carbon emissions inherent in the production and transportation of our consumable goods. These criticisms are worth taking seriously. A carbon neutrality pledge does not provide grounds for complacency.
However, a plan comprehensive enough to address all aspects of sustainability on the timescale that resource depletion and climate change mandate may be too ambitious an endeavor. In the past few years, decision-makers on all levels of climate policy have consistently failed to pass meaningful regulation, in large part because their outsized ambitions did not match up well with reality. Dramatic change is imperative to truly address climate change and resource shortages. But our governing bodies on all levels—collegiate, regional, national, and international—find themselves unable to agree on such ambitious proposals, and we find only stagnation as a result.
The fact that the Pomona administration was able to pass this pledge sets a precedent that opens the door to other policies on water use, waste, and other sustainability issues. It gives us something to work off of and build on in the years to come. It is not simply another green feature to brag about to other administrations. It is some of the first true leverage we can use to hold the administration accountable for the change that needs to happen, and for this reason I believe that it is a significant step in the right direction.
Madeline McGaughey PO ’16 is a physics major, an EcoRep, and a sponsor in Harwood Court.