Sunrise AU proposes Green New Deal to increase transparency with sustainability efforts
From campus decarbonization to fair wages for University staff, AU activists demand more from the administration
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's April 2023 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
Back in January, the American University Sunrise Movement chapter announced its initiative to build a “Green New Deal” for AU. Over the course of the semester, flyers for the AU Green New Deal have been taped up all around campus, with Sunrise members interviewing students on their opinions.
As the proposition stands now, it includes a mission to completely decarbonize University operations, ensure food security for students and faculty, fair wages for campus employees and add environmental justice education to core curriculum classes among other agendas.
AU was the nation’s first carbon neutral university, but Sunrise AU’s proposal of a Green New Deal hopes to push AU’s sustainability practices further. One of the ideas they are pushing is that being carbon neutral is not enough.
“Instead of reaching zero carbon, they think they can stop at this carbon neutrality point because they have carbon offsets,” AU Sunrise member and Student Government Senator Sal Cottone, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, said. “Students come to the campus thinking that everything is renewable energy, and that we're already at zero carbon, because some students just aren't aware of what carbon neutrality actually means.”
Carbon neutrality entails removing the same amount of carbon emissions that are being released as opposed to having no carbon emissions at all. Usually, this means that carbon offsets or credits must be purchased by the institution that is carbon neutral.
Half of AU’s energy comes from solar power located in solar farms in North Carolina, and 2,500 solar panels on campus that produce roughly 1 percent of the campus’ energy. The solar farms are located in the northeastern part of North Carolina, which is on the same power grid as D.C. The rest of the University’s energy comes from renewable energy credits, serving as offsets of AU’s carbon emissions, according to the Office of Sustainability.
“We have received feedback from the student body that there's not a general
understanding of how this university operates,” Maddie Young, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and one of the core draft writers of the AU Green New Deal, said regarding carbon neutrality on campus.
“The Office of Sustainability does transparently report [emissions], but then University marketing is really where there's that disconnect between what they're transparently reporting and what most people actually see and then come to understand based on that,” Young said.
Despite this, the Office of Sustainability knows that carbon neutrality is only one step towards a more sustainable future at AU.
“In 2021, we released a new sustainability plan,” Megan Litke, AU’s director of sustainability, said. “It was definitely a recognition that carbon neutrality was an important milestone, but it's just a milestone on our sustainability journey.”
Although students from Sunrise AU have been in talks with the Office of Sustainability about their shared goals for reducing emissions, students still plan to cover more ground.
“It's not just about being classified as an arboretum or having the ability to call ourselves carbon neutral,” Sunrise AU member John Paul Mejia, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, said. “It's ultimately about also how students are doing on this campus and how staff are doing on this campus.”
Last semester began with many AU staff members going on strike in an attempt to improve their wages and labor agreement, with many first-year students walking out of convocation in solidarity.
Sunrise AU has always been focused on fair wages as a part of their agenda, but for Mejia and others, the strike certainly solidified a need for it to be addressed in policy.
“The process of being able to stop the climate crisis or abate it means that we put in as much priority to the environment around us as we do to people,” Mejia said. “I think that economic justice for workers or for students, is a core part of that.”
This approach to climate justice is recognized as a larger part of the Green New Deal at the national level and especially with the Sunrise Movement nationally.
The Sunrise Movement at the national level holds the congressional resolution, the Green New Deal as a tenant of its core mission. Originally introduced by Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria OcasioCortez (D-NY), the draft climate resolution lays out goals about achieving net-zero greenhouse emissions, creating fair wage jobs, guaranteeing clean air and water, and prioritizing infrastructure.
For the national Sunrise Movement, applying the Green New Deal locally is a step in the right direction in order to adopt a national resolution, its members say.
“I think that change like a ‘Green New Deal’: it comes from the bottom up,” Magnolia Mead, a junior in the School of Public Affairs and Sunrise AU president, said. “If we can win a Green New Deal on our campus, that not only sets the stage for other institutions, other schools around the country to do the same thing [...] we need to utilize our strategic place in the nation's capital to push for that kind of change.”
The Green New Deal for AU is not a completely solidified proposal, as Sunrise AU is continuously seeking more input from students, staff and professors.
“We understand that a vision this large is hard to achieve.” Mejia said. “We also know that achieving a vision this large will not be possible without critical support from the student body and leverage that we built.”