Shorter timeline, carbon tax among proposed changes

Shorter timeline, carbon tax among proposed changes

URBANA — An internal carbon tax for big energy users and a shorter timeline for reaching "carbon neutrality" are two possibilities outlined in a draft climate action plan for the University of Illinois.

The Urbana campus is updating its 2010 Illinois Climate Action Plan, created to fulfill its goal of becoming "carbon neutral" by 2050 — emitting no net carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The campus committed to that goal when it signed the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment in 2008.

The new draft calls for a feasibility study in 2015-16 to see if the campus can become carbon neutral 15 years earlier, by 2035.

Here is a copy of the new draft.

"The developments of the past five years in climate science, and the fact that we are already experiencing the troubling effects of climate change, provide a new sense of urgency for tackling the climate challenge," the draft says.

The campus will take comments through Sunday on the draft plan to allow the public to weigh in on the proposed goals, said co-author Ben McCall, associate director at the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment.

Like the 2010 plan, the new draft includes benchmark goals in areas such as energy, transportation and research, and steps to achieve them through conservation efforts, a move toward renewable energy, increased recycling and sustainable landscapes. Those steps include caps on campus growth, new building standards for construction and renovations, and reductions in waste headed to landfills.

The new draft is more detailed, with SMART — "specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound," — objectives, said co-author Morgan Johnston, associate director of sustainability at UI Facilities and Services.

Some projects in the 2010 plan didn't work out, such as a controversial wind turbine, which was deemed too costly and opposed by Urbana neighbors.

But others have been more successful. A Campus Bike Center is thriving, a solar-energy installation is expected to come on line by next fall, and a pilot composting project at the Sustainable Student Farm turns 100 gallons of food waste per week into "great fertile soil," Johnston said.

The campus has reduced its overall carbon footprint by 12.1 percent since the first Climate Action Plan, officials said.

The new draft calls for studying an internal tax on campus units to offset their carbon dioxide emissions, as 29 leading American corporations have started to do in anticipation of future carbon regulations.

Adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere imposes costs on the community in the form of climate change, increased severe-weather events and a rise in sea levels, the report said. Those costs are estimated at up to $61 per ton of carbon dioxide. Cornell University is considering a $20-to-$30-per-ton charge on utility bills.

Currently, there's no cost associated with carbon-dioxide emissions from the combustion of coal and gas at Abbott Power Plant, the report said.

"As a result, the campus has no economic incentive to shift towards renewable-energy sources (unless they happen to be less expensive). Having an internal price on carbon emissions would help to tip the balance in decision-making in favor of renewable energy, thereby helping to avoid future regulatory costs associated with emissions," the report said.

The money could be used to fund other projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it said.

Another addition in the plan is in the agricultural area — converting 50 acres of the South Farms to "agroforestry," essentially planting trees rather than crops, she said

The campus will never reduce its carbon emissions to zero, but it can offset them by taking steps like planting trees, which absorb carbon dioxide, she said.

Students and faculty at an international research university will always need to travel abroad, which produces airplane emissions, Johnston said.

"For those, it will be important to have sequestration that will pull it back out of the air," she said.

Starting last fall, six Sustainability Working Advisory Teams reviewed the 2010 goals and put together progress reports and recommendations. Their input was combined with comments from dozens of specialty faculty and staff to create the working draft. An iCAP working group approved it for review.

Ultimately, it has to be adopted by the campus Sustainability Council, which includes high-level administrators, and approved by Chancellor Phyllis Wise. The council meets on May 29.

Funding remains an ongoing issue. So far it's been developed "project by project," Johnston said.

The Campus Bike Center was initially supported by the Student Sustainability Committee, which allocates student sustainability fee money, but it's now supported by direct campus funding, she said.

The cities of Champaign and Urbana and the C-U Mass Transit District joined the UI to fund the community Zipcar program.

And the campus has received about $12 million in energy-efficiency grants from the state and the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.

The campus has earned a number of high-level awards for its work on sustainability from government and environmental groups. Awareness and participation has also grown tremendously, Johnston said, "which really helps drive a culture of being good stewards of the environment and our resources."

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TonyMancuso wrote on May 15, 2015 at 3:05 pm

For those interested in commenting on the 2015 Illinois Climate Action Plan draft after reading it, please visit the form at We welcome comments, questions and other feedback.

— Tony Mancuso, Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign