A diverse coalition of more than 70 student and community organizations has sent a letter to Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, asking the former Indiana governor to commit the school to join local efforts to address climate change.
The letter asks Daniels to commit the school to carbon neutrality by 2030 and to pursue other goals that would reduce the university’s climate change impact to the school’s home city, West Lafayette.
The letter is supported by multiple Purdue student organizations and a wide array of groups from West Lafayette and throughout Indiana. Group members said several Indiana legislators representing Tippecanoe County, including Sen. Ronnie Alting, a Republican, and Rep. Chris Campbell, a Democrat, also signed the letter.
Iris O’Donnell Bellisario, a West Lafayette native and recent Purdue graduate, is one of the activists behind the letter. She said the university’s greenhouse gas emissions are preventing the city from making lasting changes to reduce climate change impact.
The city performed a greenhouse gas inventory, an accounting of all the sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the city, in 2017. It found that a vast majority, 70%, of the city’s total 411,173 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent were emitted by industrial energy sources.
Purdue University is powered by steam generated from its Wade Utility Plant, which has three natural gas boilers and one powered by burning coal.
The plant emits 279,654.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year, accounting for nearly all of the emissions caused by industrial energy sources in the city.
“The city of West Lafayette cannot truly make sustainability efforts or lower their carbon emissions at all if Purdue does not hop on,” said Ethan Bledsoe, 16, a student at West Lafayette Junior-Senior High School and one of the youth activists behind the letter. “The city could do amazing things and try their best to become completely carbon neutral, but they would still not be carbon neutral because there’s this huge entity we’re not looking at.”
In 2017, soon after President Donald Trump announced he would pull the U.S. out of an international effort to take action on climate change known as the Paris Agreement, West Lafayette city leaders, led by Mayor John Dennis, passed a resolution to adopt and support the goals of the agreement.
The following year, the city worked with Purdue engineers to develop a climate plan to achieve a 20% reduction in the greenhouse gas emitted by the city’s departments by 2020.
The city’s wastewater treatment department pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2025. Streets and sanitation optimized trash and recycling pick-up routes to reduce emissions impact from vehicles and increase collection of recyclable materials. Other departments found multiple ways to mitigate emissions.
The city also worked with youth activists, including Bledsoe and O’Donnell Bellisario, to pass a climate resolution in October 2019 that would set a goal to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 20% every four years.
The city has also made improvements around the city to help reduce its carbon footprint, including adding more trails to make the city more bicycle-friendly, planting more trees along roadways and adopting use of an anaerobic digester to encourage compositing and reduce landfill use.
The goal has been to improve the health and quality of life of West Lafayette residents now and in the future, but that goal is complicated by Purdue University’s emissions.
The activists said they want to start a conversation with Daniels to see what can be done to reduce the university’s carbon footprint.
“We don’t want it to be one-sided, where we’re just telling them what to do and then they do it. We want them to voice their concerns so they can be addressed now, rather than down the line, because we only have a decade to get our act together,” said Bledsoe.
Purdue does have some plans to limit its greenhouse gas emissions on campus.
The university released a new Physical Facilities Sustainability Master Plan in April that contains the school’s sustainability plans for the next five years.
Purdue plans to cut in half direct and indirect carbon emissions by 2025, cap energy consumption at 2011 levels and pursue 500 kilowatts of renewable energy.
It also plans to reduce water consumption, reduce waste, plant one tree a day and pursue other sustainability goals.
“Literally more has been achieved in the past few years than in all our prior history of the university,” said Purdue Director of Public Information and Issues Management Tim Doty in an email. “Among the dozens of sustainability initiatives we are already conducting, we’ve made major reductions in energy and water use; great strides in recycling, in sustainable facilities and landscaping and in other important metrics. We’re glad to hear any ideas the students may have beyond our current measures.”
The youth activists behind the letter said that the university is capable of doing much more than it is currently planning.
“Purdue is a major institution, and the fact that they haven’t made much progress regarding climate action is not okay. They need to step up and lead,” said youth activist Annabel Prokopy, 16, a junior at West Lafayette Junior-Senior High School.
Until recently, Purdue was near the bottom of the list of Big Ten schools with sustainability plans.
Indiana University, Ohio State University, University of Illinois, Northwestern University, University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Maryland plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
The University of Michigan plans for eventual carbon neutrality, but has set a modest 25% reduction goal by 2025 or earlier.
The University of Iowa, Michigan State University and Penn State have set ambitious 2020 goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and vastly increase renewable energy use.
Rutgers University and the University of Wisconsin have begun the process to draw up sustainability plans, but have not yet committed to a goal.
Until April, Purdue University did not have even a limited greenhouse gas emissions goal. The youth activists continue to hope that the “Cradle of Astronauts” does more to contribute to the air quality in West Lafayette.
“I 100% believe they are capable. They have some amazing climate scientists on campus who are looking at what are the specific impacts we are going to see at a county level, and so I think if we can narrow down these large impacts to that specific level we can also harness the brilliant minds we have on campus to create solutions to create a carbon neutral campus,” said O’Donnell Bellisario.