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Credit: Isabella Cossu

Earlier this month, Penn announced its decision to sign a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), which will allow 75% of Penn's electricity to be powered by renewables. To the excitement of many on campus and abroad, the plan is slated to bring the university “significantly closer to meeting its commitment of a 100% carbon neutral campus by 2042.” Following the announcement, Penn administration has made an effort to herald the PPA as its most recent demonstration of “strong leadership on climate action,” as well as its long-held loyalty to the goals of the Paris Climate Accord.

I pay close attention to my university’s environmental practices, and I find the outpouring of wholly positive responses to this news, while warranted in some respects, troubling in others. I can’t help but feel suspicious about the bombardment of promotional materials, knowing that, despite years of student protests, Penn continues to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the fossil fuel industry, relies on incinerators to “manage” its waste flow, and has so far failed to meet many of the basic goals laid out in the 2014 Climate Action Plan 2.0.

Based on the Penn community’s celebratory response to the PPA, it seems like the practice of “greenwashing” is not widely understood. The term, coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, was initially used to describe businesses that cultivate an environmentally conscious public image, while actually engaging in environmentally destructive behavior. The “People Do” commercials run by Chevron in the 1980s are an early example of this now pervasive marketing strategy. During the 1988 Olympics coverage, Chevron released an advertisement celebrating a butterfly refuge that was located next to one of its oil refineries in Southern California. At the same time, as it was later discovered, Chevron was illegally dumping thousands of pounds of pollutants into Santa Monica Bay through that same refinery.

The ceaseless publicity campaigns surrounding Penn’s sustainability efforts are similarly deceptive. There is no question that PPA is a major step in the right direction, but I fear that this decision will overshadow the devastating impact of Penn’s investment practices, discourage scrutiny of the most recent Climate and Sustainability Action Plan, and contribute to the already dangerous levels of climate complacency on campus. 

By using the PPA to proclaim itself a champion of sustainability, Penn is greenwashing the areas of its operations that are, and will continue to be, socially and environmentally harmful. In addition to Penn’s investment in the fossil fuel industry, another notable example of such harmful behavior is Penn’s approach to waste management. The “Waste Minimization and Recycling” section of the latest Climate and Sustainability Action Plan states that Penn’s “landfill waste has decreased by 80 percent due to the use of waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration.” What this means is that 80% of the trash Penn produces is now being burned in incinerators around Philadelphia, instead of being sent to landfills. The Plan lists this strategy as one of its waste-minimization “Accomplishments,” leading us to believe that relying on waste-to-energy incineration is, well, an accomplishment. What the report does not mention, however, is that the toxic air pollution these incinerators generate has been linked to increased rates of asthma and cancer in the communities that surround them.

If Penn is to become a true leader in climate action, more has to be done. We cannot afford to be reassured by the promise of a campus made carbon neutral by 2042 without an official commitment to full divestment, a holistic waste-reduction plan that does not rely on incineration, and – most importantly – a Climate Action Plan that actually proves Penn to be a champion of social and environmental progress.

It is imperative that the Penn community continue to pressure the administration to reduce its social and economic impact. Greenwashing can be dangerously effective at delaying climate progress. Immediate action is possible, and will start when Penn takes radical measures to fight for a livable future for its students. Until then, we need to resist the urge to congratulate our university for doing the bare minimum.

LUCY CORLETT is a College senior from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, studying Urban Studies and Hispanic Studies. Her email address is lcorlett@sas.upenn.edu.

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