Worldwide buzz this week has focused largely on Earth Day's 40th anniversary, and the University of Montana—that bastion of the environmentally conscious—is no exception.
The crown jewel of UM's eco-orgy was the much-anticipated release of its Climate Action Plan, an intense study into how the school can radically reduce its contribution to climate change. The university's annual emissions output has increased significantly in the past decade, from 35,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2000 to just under 50,000 in 2007. UM predicts that, if no action is taken, the school's greenhouse gas emissions will double by 2050.
That's exactly why UM President George Dennison three years ago made a seemingly outrageous vow to make his alma mater carbon neutral by 2020. With the plan now officially announced, the university is one step closer to that goal. But like most UM projects, this one comes with a few head-scratchers.
For instance, it could cost as much as $94 million up front and $190,000 annually for the foreseeable future. A statewide financial crunch for the Montana University System makes the numbers all the more daunting. We suppose Dennison never said going green would be cheap.
Dennison did say carbon neutrality would mean major changes for how UM operates on a daily basis, and a look at the plan reveals just how major.
There's mention of the proposed four-day workweek, a quick-and-dirty way to cut energy consumption that's already been well covered—and widely panned. Still, Dennison continues to push a UM task force to determine its feasibility.
There's also talk of transportation issues. Commuting and air travel account for 31.6 percent of UM's total greenhouse gas output. Roughly 4,900 students drive to campus daily. According to the plan, if 5 percent of those students commuted by bus, the university as a whole would drive 132,000 fewer miles a year. The strategy to switch those drivers into riders: promoting the bus.
Two big-ticket items also caught our attention. First, a wood-fired boiler and off-campus biomass plant—valued at $54 million—would replace natural gas powered steam-based heating. Then, off-campus wind turbines—with a price tag of about $30 million—would replace purchased electricity.
Now, we're the first to salute UM's accomplishment in drafting a Climate Action Plan. The more efficiently our neighbors at the university can run, the better. This plan clearly states why there's a problem, and what the solutions may be, but ignores the how—as in, How on God's not-quite-as-green Earth do you plan on paying for any of this? That multi-million dollar question hangs over the plan's promise like a cloud of soot.