Pretty Lawns and Gardens: What is it with 2050?

Time horizons should never be conservative, generalized or arbitrary, but ambitious, specific and planned. This is why attempting to make our world economy carbon-neutral and green by 2050 bothers me. Why 2050? It’s a long way off, it’s clearly arbitrary and it’s hardly ambitious. But perhaps it’s fair — 30 years to transform an energy grid that serves a world of almost eight billion people is not too conservative. The scale is enormous, and though the technology exists to make our world green today, the pure capital required to do so would be immense.

Tufts, however, is nowhere near as large as the planet Earth. All told, our community doesn’t register as anywhere close to 1/1,000 of a percent of the global population. Why, then, is the time horizon for our university’s transition to carbon neutrality also the year 2050? I don’t know, and I don’t particularly care — what’s clear at the surface is that Tufts should be able to transition faster than the world as a whole.

I’m glad Tufts has committed to carbon neutrality as a serious goal, and I understand that the university is bound in part by how energy is manufactured in the wider electrical grid. But shouldn’t we be able to make greater strides toward carbon neutrality in a shorter amount of time? I believe we can by further expanding the university’s capacity for energy production, decreasing heat loss from dorms and other campus buildings, and replacing outdated HVAC and lighting systems with optimized electric ones. Properly planned and implemented, an ambitious sustainability plan for a carbon-neutral campus could take aim at 2020.

I’m not saying this would be inexpensive, but I do believe it to be a paramount priority. As I’ve written before, sustainability is good for society and fiscally sound. That said, here are a few specific proposals to expedite the university’s transition to carbon neutrality:

1. Expand energy production. Tufts should take advantage of the many roofs on campus and equip all with solar panels — some already are, but total coverage is necessary. Small, unobtrusive wind turbines of different types should be installed wherever possible, from corners of buildings to out by the sports fields.

2. Decrease heat and energy loss. All windows should be equipped with cellular blinds. A side effect of heat-trapping shades? More comfortable dorms with better regulated temperatures.

3. Along these same lines, there is no reason any light anywhere on campus shouldn’t be an LED. Long-lived and energy-efficient, LEDs would allow energy produced on campus to go further.

4. Invest in significant battery banks because Boston isn’t sunny all the time … or really ever. Using wind power and battery-backed solar could take Tufts off the grid.

I’m deliberately not using numbers here — I don’t know them — but a project of this scale would require significant investment on the university’s part, as well as an artificial (systemic) and real (human) decrease in energy demand. It’s possible, though. We already have our sights on it. Why wait until 2050?