Greenwashing Alert: Where’s the Three Zeros Plan, UNC?

On September 20, 2019, I participated in the global climate strike at the Peace and Justice Plaza on Franklin Street spurred by Greta Thunberg and her Skolestreik for Klimaet. I was inspired to see Chapel Hill elementary, middle and high school students striking to attend the event, and showing their support for climate action. I was also happy to see local residents, most of whom were older. 

People held clever signs with clear messages; one protester wore a Santa Claus costume with a sign that read “Santa says coal is naughty.” A variety of environmental activism groups like Citizens’ Climate Lobby and Sunrise Movement shared their messages and recruited support. Speakers took to the microphone to share their perspectives. We sang and chanted. It felt great to stand with others in support of climate action. Even so, I left the strike disheartened for two reasons:

  1. I saw so few UNC undergrad students that I could have counted them on my own two hands. Where were the young people that say they care about environmentalism?
  2. The climate strike did not have a clear target audience or clear message. Activism cannot be effective without clear goals, objectives, and strategies.

I left with a desire to cultivate the energy and sense of community that I felt at the September 20 strike at the Peace and Justice Plaza, and to call for specific change in my local sphere, i.e. on campus at UNC.

As a former Three Zeros Environmental Initiative (TZEI) employee, I have unique insight into the reality of the status of UNC’s sustainability initiative. Carol Folt announced the initiative in 2016, identifying three goals: zero waste to landfills, zero greenhouse gas emissions, and net zero water use. As an intern, I watched TZEI quietly abandon its deadline of 2050, hire a consulting firm to develop a comprehensive plan, fire that consulting firm and scrap the deliverable, announce intentions to release a plan on Three Zeros Day in 2018 (the second anniversary of UNC’s adoption of the initiative), and then fail to produce it. No plan materialized for Three Zeros Day in 2019 either. It’s time to hold UNC accountable by demanding the release of a comprehensive, actionable Three Zeros plan. Read my letter to the Chancellor about this issue in the Daily Tar Heel here.

TZEI has promised the release of a comprehensive plan to achieve these goals for three years, but has not delivered. This is in part because of the frequent change in leadership—Carol Folt established this program in 2016, and has since left the University. Chief Sustainability Officer Brad Ives was fired last year, leaving the initiative under the direction of UNC Director of Energy Services Lew Kellogg. Among his other duties as Director of Energy Services, Kellogg oversees UNC’s coal plant – a role in inherent, direct conflict with the goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions.

I made a plan to strike for the climate on the steps of South Building where senior administrators make decisions that directly determine UNC’s environmental impact. I would call for the public release of a comprehensive, actionable Three Zeros Plan that explains in detail how the University will achieve its widely publicized and highly celebrated goals. Our first strike was a success—fellow students and I brought coffee and signs to the steps of the South Building and sat there for almost five hours, talking through what we knew about sustainability at UNC, and what we thought needed to change.

Students Olivia Corriere (left) and Zach Walker (right) strike on the steps of the South Building to pressure the UNC administration to release a Three Zeros Plan.

Since then, students have striked fourteen times on the steps of South Building calling for the release of a comprehensive, actionable Three Zeros Plan. The powerful people that work in this building, which houses the Office of the Chancellor, have to walk by us every Friday and acknowledge that UNC students care about climate action, that we are watching what they do, and that we will hold them accountable. By demonstrating in person, we have slowly built relationships with some administrators, who have been helpful in making suggestions on how to evolve and extend our efforts to impact change. 

At every strike, supporters sign the “guestbook” in support. Over time, supporters have written dozens of messages, like these:

  • “Want to see tangible next steps for climate action” (9/27/19)
  • “Nothing is not an option” (10/4/19)
  • “UNC cares more about money than they do about our planet” (10/4/19)
  • “No more coal!” (10/25/19)
  • “I am the Three Zeros Student Leader 2019. I do not know what I am supposed to be representing at the moment. That is a problem… no plan, no transparency!” (11/1/19)
  • “I am fighting for this University to not be a hypocrisy and prepare the next generation” (11/22/19)
  • “I am fighting for my baby nephew’s future!” (11/22/19)
  • “The students are doing their part…it’s time for the administration to stop hiding behind PR worries” (11/22/19)
  • “New decade, same vibes. I’d like to live; give me back my good, stable climate.” (1/10/20)
  • “UNC-CH should be a leader for other universities in the fight against the climate crisis.” (1/10/20)
  • “We owe this to the future students at UNC” (1/17/20)
  • “Environmental justice is racial justice” (1/24/20)
  • “End coal on college campuses. Be a visionary for once. Have some courage for once.” (1/24/20)
  • “Everyone is listening, waiting… UNC, your move.” (2/14/20)
  • “It’s Valentine’s Day—can’t we PLEASE show our planet some LOVE?!?” (2/14/20)

Sometimes it can be hard to know whether this kind of activism is effective, but I knew we were holding administration’s feet to the fire on this issue when Chancellor Guskiewicz stopped by our strike a couple weeks ago to ask, “how many more of these strikes do you have planned?” to which my response was, “as many as it takes until the Three Zeros Plan is released.”

If you’d like to strike with this movement, find us on the steps of South Building every Friday morning, usually 8:30am-noon. Check out the Facebook page here. If you’d like to do something here and now to support this movement, email the Chancellor ( and call for the release of a comprehensive Three Zeros Plan!

Featured Image: Students gather on the steps of the South Building for the first Three Zeros strike on September 27, 2019.

About the Author: Olivia Corriere is a senior undergraduate studying environmental sustainability, geography, and urban planning. She serves as Co-Chair of the UNC Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee, managing renewable energy projects on campus. She also works as Project Manager at Blue Dogwood Public Market in Chapel Hill, NC. She plans to work in renewable energy development when she graduates in May. In her free time, Olivia enjoys hiking, running, and cooking with people she loves.