NIU’s eco-friendly efforts plant a seed in need of watering

Northern+Illinois+University+should+strive+to+be+better+and+more+open+about+eco-friendly+options+throughout+DeKalb.

Eleanor Gentry

Northern Illinois University should strive to be better and more open about eco-friendly options throughout DeKalb.

By Northern Star Editorial Board

Despite NIU’s recent approval of a number of campus renovations and initiatives, the lack of accessibility of NIU’s plans doesn’t provide reassurance that NIU’s campus will see tangible progression toward an eco-friendly campus.

The collaborative sustainability project between NIU and Energy Systems Group, NIU Goes Green, the initiative that provided upgrades to campus-wide power and water conservation, has not seen an update to its website since 2014. The website was part of NIU’s pledge to the American College & University President’s Climate Commitment, an agreement signaling NIU would implement a strategy to reach climate neutrality, which expired in 2015.

While the upgrades to the campus infrastructure saved NIU nearly $2 million per year and provided important conservation, the project’s quick ending did not allow for the proper followthrough that would have kept NIU on track to a more sustainable campus. Essentially, NIU Goes Green acted as a short-term repair to a problem that requires long-term solutions for the campus to become and remain eco-friendly.

Recent sustainability developments have been seen in the form of new commitments and data collection.

NIU conducted a greenhouse gas inventory of 2019 and 2020 to measure emissions between four major sectors of emission sources at NIU: energy consumption, transportation, solid waste and water/wastewater. 

This inventory found that NIU emitted 209,882 metric tons of greenhouse gasses over two years, a number that the report notes is lower than projected, specifically in the transportation sector, due to “the impacts of the covid-19 pandemic, and reductions in fleet vehicle usage and commuting to campus.”

To put the size of NIU’s contribution of greenhouse gas emissions into perspective, the report compares NIU’s emissions to that of other midwestern universities, with NIU’s emissions sitting at 7.4 metric tons per student and student population of 16,609 in 2019. 

In comparison, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign emitted 8 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per student in 2019 with a student body of 51,605. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee had a student population of 19,829 in 2019 and emitted 5 metric tons per student.

While data and future inventories are important in assessing the scope of NIU’s emissions, the next steps in planning for NIU’s campus sustainability are less clear. The next steps should include analysis of the emissions inventory data and setting greenhouse gas reduction targets, according to the NIU Campus Sustainability website

While setting reduction goals is important, there is not much public clarity on what those goals may look like, nor when future targets would be met. Recommendations in the greenhouse gas inventory report suggest NIU commit to carbon neutrality, or the removal and reduction of CO2 emissions, by 2045. 

The lack of clarity on how and when the university actually plans on following through with their goals is unsettling when looking back to NIU’s previous initiative, NIU Goes Green, which ended in only a year’s time. 

With regard to commitments being made on campus sustainability, NIU received approval for the funding of a $23 million sustainability center in July. The Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability, while good for research and developments in sustainability, does not have its current goals focused toward NIU as a campus or institution. The center plans to focus on a much wider set of goals including developing new water management systems across multiple industries and multiple research prospects, including research into the climate, natural ecosystems and new methods of food production. 

“NIU just formally committed to address climate change by becoming a signatory to the Second Nature President’s Climate Leadership Carbon Commitment,” said Campus Sustainability Coordinator Courtney Gallaher in August via an open letter from Campus Sustainability. 

This commitment mentioned by Gallaher aims to achieve carbon neutrality through the development of a climate action plan. Joining other universities in signing this commitment gives some insight into how NIU plans to attain carbon neutrality, including current measures like emission tracking data and infrastructure updates to reduce reductions in the short term. Though there is a sustainability plan and steps are being taken, the commitment does not outline a timeline for when advancements are to be expected.

We have widely seen NIU’s attempt at making progress toward an eco-friendly campus on paper, but NIU is heavily lacking in showing their action. 

Better informing the NIU community on developments in sustainability would help to reassure that there is work being done currently in helping reach future goals. 

Regular updates from Campus Sustainability on what they are working on and explanations of their work while allowing the community to provide feedback on those updates would be a strong way to ensure our campus will see regular progress. Additionally, it would be an important step in holding those running the initiative accountable for following through. 

With how important it is that NIU becomes more eco-sustainable, it is also important that the community is aware of these efforts, especially so they can hold the university accountable.