Column: A student’s guide to the Climate Action Strategy Report


In the past year or so, the Office of Sustainability has created various plans and progress reports filled with relevant and interesting information about the future of sustainability on and off Lehigh’s campus.

The office has been working hard on the Sustainability Strategic Plan 2030 and the Climate Action Strategy (CAS) report, but these documents cannot be easily read and understood by students.

While the creation of a tangible roadmap to achieve carbon neutrality is undeniably a good thing, the report is dense and students do not have the time or energy to parse through a 20-page PDF of sustainable development planning in between classwork and well-earned leisure time.

What follows is a short and easily digestible summation of the CAS, written with the intention of educating the student body on the school’s environmental priorities (hopefully without boring them to death).

In short, Lehigh’s goal is to reach net-zero emissions by 2040, with a 60 percent decrease by 2025 and an 80 percent decrease by 2030. 

The plan to achieve this is literally nine-fold, but the most impactful, short-term solution that students should know about is the Virtual Power Purchase Agreement (VPPA), a 15-year solar partnership signed by Lehigh University, Lafayette College, Muhlenberg College and Dickinson College in 2020 to purchase a 200-acre solar farm in Texas.

According to the CAS, the VPPA will cut Lehigh’s current electricity emissions by 90 percent. Seeing how purchased electricity made up 47 percent of Lehigh’s total emissions in 2019, this agreement serves to take a sizable chunk out of the university’s carbon footprint.

Additional sources of emission reductions mentioned in the report include a plan to electrify all Lehigh vehicles by 2030, which you can read about in my previous column, and a plan to electrify some campus buildings. 

The report also discusses decarbonizing central heating plants and preserving local carbon offsets, but this is where the specifics of these policies end.

All these measures and more are discussed in the equally dry Sustainability Strategic Plan 2030, but neither the CAS or the Sustainability Strategic Plan explain how or why these changes will practically be implemented or what the student body can do to help.

One of the CAS’s arms is vaguely named “Sustainable Policies,” and is described as “Sustainable procurement standards for the purchase of electronics, furniture, food, and paper,” along with a “focus on booking carbon-neutral air travel and encouraging carbon-neutral commuting.”

These are all good ideas, but they leave the reader with additional questions about what difference the policies will make and how these policies will be implemented.

I am sure that the Office of Sustainability has answers to these questions, but they are not shared with the greater Lehigh community in the CAS.

The economic impact of the proposed actions gives a similar amount of detail.

The cost of new investments is projected to be $12 to $26 million, while the overall operational savings by 2040 equals $29 million.

The CAS does specify the amount of money allocated to each of the nine aspects of the plan and it breaks up the amount into short, medium and long-term investments, but the origin of these numbers or the wild variety in their ranges is never quite explained.

The CAS does begin to pull back the curtain toward the end of the report, explaining that many of the policy decisions were informed through working and advisory groups that met monthly from September 2020 onward. 

These groups were said to have shared their “expertise, ideas and opinions” that contributed to the final project ideas, but the report said nothing about who these groups were or what their demographic makeup was.

Furthermore, the report frequently uses the word “stakeholder” to describe those who were considered and consulted on the report. But, it does not explicitly state the “stake” in question. 

There presumably could be an ecological, economic or moral stake in a sustainable campus or any combination of the three, but we are left to wonder which of these very different stakes, holding very different implications, is the one which is referred to.

The lack of specificity in the identities of both the stakeholders and the working groups does not give me confidence that the concerns and ideas of ecologically-minded students were given much credence.

I want to make it clear that I am bringing up these shortcomings of the CAS solely from the perspective of a student who wants to get more involved.

For all I know, the working groups could’ve been made up of a diverse group of students and staff along with those with economic interests. 

But, I don’t know. I’ve read all the reports and plans and strategies and I don’t know who they are made for or who they are made by. That is exactly the issue.

I am happy that our institution is taking steps toward carbon neutrality, but the lack of transparency from the Office of Sustainability – despite the release of these reports – leaves me wondering if my voice is being heard by those “stakeholders” that are planning the future of the university.

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