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What the Massachusetts study leaves out is that biomass burned in a plant is usually going to burn one way or the other—whether it's burned in slash piles or incinerated in a forest fire. Even if it sits dying in a forest, it's still releasing carbon emissions. So why not use it in a biomass plant? Plus, adds Atkins, studies like these shouldn't just focus on coal or biomass plant emissions, but the whole process of obtaining material for energy: The emissions for harvesting biomass are far less than the emissions from harvesting coal.
Pollution might be an issue, but if the biomass plant is engineered correctly, that slash and dead wood could be burned in a high quality combustion system, which cuts down on smoke and includes bag filters for particulate matter. That's less smoke and particulate than slash burning or forest fires. Atkins expects there will be discussions about biomass and air quality, but he says he hopes people can see the advantages of biomass.
"Especially in the West, it's not if it's going to burn, it's when, where and how you burn it," he says. "We can do this in a way that really minimizes that pollution emission and that's a better place for it to be."
Big change vs. small change
Any solid climate action plan calls for direct energy efficiency and conservation measures, and UM's is no exception. Before any large-scale projects like the biomass plant will be implemented, the plan calls for energy efficiency upgrades, lighting retrofits, optimized heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems, and improved natural cooling projects like planting trees to create shade. Already, UM has gone through energy audits and started retrofit projects to make sure a biomass plant would only provide energy for buildings with maximum efficiency.
Another aspect of the plan calls for behavioral changes. One group of UM students has started a social marketing group that evaluates how to encourage peers to make eco-conscious choices on campus, such as taking shorter showers and not wasting electricity.
To the extent that UM's climate action plan is about reducing its carbon footprint, all the shorter showers and light bulb changes are absolute no-brainers. How to connect individual action with national policy, however, is something climate action plans often neglect, even though legislation would make green technology more accessible and less costly.
Author and activist Derrick Jensen has notably criticized green projects and campaigns that focus on individual action as opposed to large-scale political change. In the July/August 2009 issue of Orion he wrote:
"Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet?"
The fact that climate action plans are still not impacting national policy might mean there's some element missing from them, giving merit to criticism coming from activists like Jensen: If we green every single campus in the U.S., will that lead to greener transportation systems, or drive corporations to pursue biomass instead of coal, or, most importantly, spur the U.S. government to finally pass meaningful climate legislation?
In a short statement at the end of UM's climate plan it states: "We intend to expand opportunities for students to engage with climate mitigation and adaptation, both through campus initiatives and work with organizations at the national and international levels." The one paragraph section goes on to suggest helping students seek climate change internships, procure travel funding for conferences and learn more about how to engage in "real-world problem-solving, and become part of a larger national/international network working to understand and respond to global climate change."
While this is a step in the right direction, it should be more than an afterthought. UM already does an admirable job incorporating climate action and sustainability into its curriculum. For instance, a program called The Green Thread gives faculty the resources to incorporate green ideas into the classroom. UM also developed a Climate Change Studies minor in just the last year, which is one of the first of its kind in the nation. But some on campus would like to see the lessons learned from these programs used to affect larger changes.
"I think people need to have a sufficient change in their own philosophy and behavior such that they then start demanding that of the politicians," says Running. "For all the climate science that we've put out over a good number of years, we still don't have politicians ready to make difficult votes. That just guarantees the emissions track will keep marching upward. So the only way the politicians are going to get guts is for a larger fraction of society to start hammering away on them, and say, 'You vote these sort of policies in or we'll vote you out. Take your pick.'"
Zack Porter agrees with pushing the country toward climate solutions, and he says UM's plan is not about just changing light bulbs. Though it's easy to point out what more needs to be done, he says UM's achievements in just the last year reflect a walk-the-talk attitude.
"This climate action plan is just the kind of demonstration project we need to show our legislators why legislation dealing with energy is so important and how effective it can be," Porter says.
Even after lobbying in D.C. and watching legislation opportunities go nowhere, he's adamant about universities with plans like UM's aggressively putting their ideas in the spotlight.
"The climate action train has left the station," Porter says. "It has certainly left the station in other parts of the world and it's starting to leave the station on a small scale across the United States, especially on college campuses. It's time for legislation to do the same."