Op-ed: If Pitt wants to be carbon-neutral by 2037, it must invest in land

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Photo Via Sam Beebe, Ecotrust | TNS

By Austin Jepsky, graduate student in sustainable engineering

At the winter Board of Trustees meeting on Feb. 28, Pitt made a historic commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2037. Now comes the hard part of actually figuring out how to implement this goal.
Based on my research and experiences, the quickest and easiest way to neutralize one’s carbon footprint is to invest in land — meaning Pitt needs to look beyond its own campus. Natural land is the only economical way to pull carbon from the atmosphere. Plants take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into biomass. When they die, some of the carbon is released back into the atmosphere, but the rest is stored in the soil. This is how the coal we burn for electricity was originally created.
The University already owns property outside of Oakland and the branch campuses. The Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology consists of about 360 acres of forest land for research in northwestern Pennsylvania. However, the property more relevant for this example is the Allen L. Cook Spring Creek Preserve near Rock River, Wyoming.
If you didn’t know Pitt had property in Wyoming, you’re probably not alone. The preserve consists of approximately 4,700 acres of American shortgrass prairie currently managed by the Office of Study Abroad (the contradiction in that sentence could warrant its own op-ed). Pitt conducts a summer ecology field course on the property and also leases it for cattle grazing to generate some revenue for the University.
For reference, it takes about 40 acres of shortgrass prairie to store 1 ton of carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, the average American car produces around 4.6 metric tons of carbon emissions every year. This means the Spring Creek Preserve stores enough carbon every year to remove more than 110 cars from the road.
Bordering the Spring Creek Preserve on two sides is the Hall Ranch, which is currently for sale for just under $10 million — a drop in the bucket for the University’s $4.3 billion endowment. The Hall Ranch consists of 21,322 acres, which comes out to less than $500 an acre. Buying this property would sequester enough carbon to remove more than 500 cars from the road. So, with this land acquisition, Pitt could expand its summer field course program and simultaneously see increased dividends from new cattle grazing leases.
Closer to Pittsburgh, vast stands of timber are for sale across Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Based on a 2005 EPA study, American forests can remove anywhere from 1.1 to 7.7 metric tons of carbon every year. Assigning an average value of 4.6 metric tons per acre, this would be like eliminating one car for every acre of forest bought by Pitt. Furthermore, these forest properties could be used by our ecology and environmental science departments for further research, while also providing revenue to the University through regular timber harvests.
Also, given the new buildings planned for Pitt’s campus in the coming years, there is a limited chance of the University meeting its 2030 sustainability goal to increase canopy coverage on campus by 50%. Adding more forest-covered property to the University’s portfolio could help the University as an overall institution meet this objective.
Figuring out how to make Pitt carbon-neutral by 2037 will be no easy task. It will require sacrifices and hard choices. However, I strongly believe that the quickest way to meet these goals is for the University to invest in land for the dual use of research and income generation. The numbers speak for themselves.

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