OPINION: Future sustainability goals need to focus on net zeros

Climate change is no longer a matter of science. The scientific backing was revealed decades ago. A literature review conducted by Institute of Physics, Science found that 97 percent of publishing climate scientists believe that humans are causing global warming.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported last year that humans must reduce their resource consumption by an “unprecedented” amount in order to prevent a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-1850 levels by 2030. The best scientists in the world believe a temperature increase of this magnitude would have disastrous and irreversible consequences for our water supply, security, health and economic capacity. If we want a future that even resembles our current environmental conditions, we have 11 years to change everything.

USC only recently started to pull any of its weight in alleviating the climate crisis, but it will soon have a final opportunity to make a sufficient effort.

In 2014, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education released a report measuring the quality of USC’s sustainability efforts. Of the 21 prestigious peer institutions scored by the report, USC ranked last in overall sustainability score — 10 percent worse than the school in second-to-last place and 24 percent below the average.

Since then, the University has made admirable strides in the right direction. In 2015, the University approved its Sustainability 2020 Plan. For the most part however, USC has made disappointing progress in achieving the majority its sustainability goals.

Of the 60 action items laid out in the Sustainability 2020 Plan, only one goal had a baseline effort that began prior to 2015: A Staff Assembly fair on the issue of sustainability started in 2005. Whatever the cause is, USC has hardly any history of taking action to reduce its environmental footprint, and as a result, there isn’t a sustainability framework upon which the University can further its environmental efforts.

As Sustainability 2020 comes to a close, however, that framework is starting to take root. We have initiatives in energy and waste reduction in place now that didn’t exist five years ago, all spurred by Sustainability 2020, all granting the ability to think even bigger for 2030.Soon, the University will draft its next set of goals to follow Sustainability 2020. USC will be able to truly demonstrate the compassionate and ambitious qualities it prides itself in through this process.

USC’s future sustainability goals must outline an explicit effort to eventually reach net zeros in energy, water and waste. This means USC can only consume as much energy as it produces, balance its water usage and limit the amount of waste going to landfills, ideally to nothing. No university has reached net zero in even one of these areas, and most institutions near USC’s size haven’t even gotten close. This is obviously a lofty goal and perhaps an infeasible one to be achieved in the next eight or 10 years, but it is the goal that science demands we reach as soon as possible. The new set of goals must explicitly mandate the creation of the necessary physical and political infrastructure to ensure we meet net zeros by the end of the subsequent plan.

Doing so will require changing the perception of what is feasible. If buildings cannot physically support solar panels, USC must reinforce those buildings. If partnerships mandate unsustainable waste practices, USC must find new partners.

Furthermore, the University must centralize its data on sustainability to measure its footprint. Currently, USC has no centralized database on activities like faculty transportation. For example, the Viterbi School of Engineering knows how often its faculty uses air travel, but because that information isn’t pooled by the central University administration, there is no framework in place to accurately measure USC’s ecological footprint. From students to school deans to the University President, everyone at USC must take action, and that action must be spurred by sentiments of accountability, urgency and support from the highest levels of the University. USC must execute its sustainability efforts as a singular unit.

USC is one of the largest private employers in Southern California. The actions of the school with a $5-billion endowment are not limited by circumstance alone, but by what the University finds worthy of investment. In the past, the environment and, by consequence, human health and well-being, have not been a priority for the University. Time is running out, and if everything must change, USC must as well. The future generations USC aims to educate must be protected by the University.