When you first arrive at Northeastern, you may notice the university’s accomplishments in making the campus more environmentally friendly. The dining halls tout their commitment to sustainability with signs about saving water, using more eco-friendly food in their cooking, and reducing plastic waste. The newest building on campus, ISEC, has achieved LEED Gold sustainability certification by incorporating innovative technologies to reduce water and electricity use. Northeastern was also designated one of the Top 50 Green Colleges by the Princeton Review in 2019. While we are proud of these efforts, Northeastern’s dedication to sustainability does not run as deep as its appearance may suggest.
Commitment to “Climate Justice”
The plan in place to govern climate and sustainability action at Northeastern dates back to 2010. While this Sustainable Action Plan was appropriate for the time (Northeastern used to rank at the very top of sustainable colleges!), it is now clear that this plan is not enough. Northeastern's current commitment is to reduce its CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050, which falls short of the necessary net-zero or emissions free standard and is a longer timeframe than many other colleges and governments–including our own City of Boston. The old plan also does not address the social issues that are intricately tied to climate issues, instead treating climate as a stand-alone problem. For example, they do not address how new buildings and projects will affect the surrounding community, gaps in food access both within and beyond campus, or the undemocratic processes used in our administration’s decision-making.
In the past two years, the university has been creating a new plan, titled the Climate Justice Action Plan. The name change would suggest that Northeastern is embracing a deep, institution-wide approach to reducing its environmental impact and creating resiliency for our community. In addition, true climate justice means addressing racial, economic, and social issues, because the communities that bear the highest burden of climate risk and environmental damage are often the most marginalized. Beyond more aggressive commitments to decarbonization and waste reduction, The Climate Justice Action Plan must include efforts to right the injustices that Northeastern creates, or it cannot truly claim to be Climate Justice. This new plan is promising, but we will have to continue to pressure both its creators, in order to make it as comprehensive and just as possible, and the larger administration to actually adopt it.
Housing Justice, Racial Justice, Environmental Justice...It’s All the Same Fight
As you become acclimated to Northeastern University and its surrounding neighborhoods and communities, you will most likely hear about Roxbury, Fenway, and Mission Hill. Not only is Northeastern a neighbor of these communities; many Northeastern students are also residents of them. Northeastern does not have enough housing for its ever-growing student body, as evidenced by the decision to force students into crammed doubles and triples in the International Village and East Village dorms. The housing that the university does build is expensive (rents in Lightview start at $1,450/mo) and not an option for many students. As a result, most Northeastern students join the mass exodus of upperclassmen that settle into apartments on ‘the Hill’ and throughout Roxbury and the Fenway.
This occupation by Northeastern undergraduate students drives up demand for and creates a shortage of housing, causing rents to quickly rise beyond the means of local tenants. The median home price in Roxbury increased 67% from $285,000 in 2006 to $476,250 in 2016 (the cumulative rate of inflation during that time was under 20%). As of 2022, the median price of a home in Roxbury has climbed even higher, reaching nearly $700,000.
This has resulted in mass displacement of long-time residents, who simply cannot afford to continue living in these neighborhoods. In turn, this creates a less resilient community. Through its decision not to build enough housing for its students, Northeastern perpetuates housing injustice and harm on surrounding communities.
Multiple forces are working against frontline communities in Boston, and Northeastern’s unfettered and rapid expansion only worsens the severity of crises like climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, rampant racism, and economic disenfranchisement. The communities of our city deserve and need better.
Okay, But What Can I Do?
You may be reading this thinking that Northeastern has some real problems. In many areas, this is completely true. The actions of the Northeastern administration are driven primarily by the desire for profit, good rankings, and positive headlines, rather than any commitment to climate (or any other form of) justice.
But concurrent with environmental negligence from the administration is a widespread network of passionate students who are dedicated to climate action and environmental justice. One example of a student organization working to combat these forces of oppression and inaction is Sunrise Northeastern. Currently we are working on an initiative with other student organizations, professors, and community partners called the Green NEU Deal. The initiative is inspired by the Green New Deal, a “congressional resolution to mobilize every aspect of American society to 100% clean and renewable energy, guarantee living-wage jobs for anyone who needs one, and a just transition for both workers and frontline communities—all in the next 10 years.” The GND was championed by the Sunrise Movement and introduced as a resolution in the Congress by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY-14th).
The Green NEU Deal is a platform imagining what a true commitment to justice at Northeastern would look like. This includes meaningful sustainability commitments like zero emissions, retrofitting old and energy-inefficient buildings, and minimizing plastic waste. Equally important are elements of labor, economic, and racial justice. Without living wages and the ability to unionize, workers at Northeastern cannot be resilient. Without a plan for Northeastern to slow its expansion and provide adequate housing for its students, our neighboring communities will continue to suffer. It takes an intersectional approach to problems to ensure that we will have a just and livable future.