The Challenge of Campus Carbon Neutrality

In 2006, presidents of nearly 50 colleges and universities signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), an agreement to reach climate, or carbon, neutrality on each campus. By August 2008, more than 500 presidents had signed the Commitment. (The agreement can be found at www.presidentsclimatecommitment.org.)

Carbon neutrality is defined as having no net greenhouse gas (GHG) contribution to the atmosphere. How do the initial signatories to the ACUPCC anticipate attaining carbon neutrality? At the simplest level, this involves creating an inventory of campus emissions, reducing or eliminating these emissions wherever possible, and then purchasing “carbon offsets” to mitigate any emissions that remain. The result is carbon neutrality.
   
While it is possible to become carbon neutral simply by purchasing offsets for your entire carbon footprint, there is something disquieting about that — perhaps a perception that we are “buying” our way out of environmentally poor behaviors. The Climate Commitment encourages us to first reduce our carbon emissions tangibly, and then offset the balance with purchased carbon credits as a last resort. Whatever offsets are purchased must be bought year after year in order for a campus to retain its carbon neutrality.

There were three “commitments” in the ACUPCC: to develop a comprehensive plan to achieve climate neutrality; initiate two or more of a list of tangible actions to reduce greenhouse gases; and make the action plan, inventory, and progress reports publicly available.

The first item requires institutions to create an institutional structure, such as a Campus Sustainability Committee. Each organization must also complete a comprehensive inventory of greenhouse gas emissions (including emissions from electricity, heating, commuting, and air travel) and update the inventory every other year thereafter.

The second section of the agreement requires that organizations initiate two or more tangible actions, such as building LEED Silver-equivalent buildings or purchasing 15 percent of the institution’s electricity from renewable sources.

The actions described in the ACUPCC will not create a carbon-free campus by themselves. There are limits to current technology as well as the practicality of the number of projects an institution can physically and financially undertake. The ACUPCC reporting breaks emissions into three categories: emissions from purchased fuels for stationary sources (heating, hot water, etc.), electricity, and emissions from campus vehicles and other campus-initiated transportation. Emissions from the first two categories amount to 70 to 85 percent on most traditional campuses. If carbon neutrality is the goal, the place to start is by looking at facilities and campus energy distribution system(s).

In addition to energy consumption, every building is a source of deliveries and services that contribute to one’s footprint. For new buildings, a LEED Silver certification will not be enough to attain carbon neutrality. The average energy reduction for Silver-level buildings, according to the USGBC and the New Building Institute, is 33 percent. In most locations, renewable energy generation is not yet cost effective without government subsidies. Still, renewable energy must be considered for future integration into any sustainability plan. Locating sources of renewable energy, whether on campus or off, should be a part of a school’s strategic thinking.

Student and faculty travel for daily commuting and school-sponsored trips was the second largest contributor of carbon emissions, according to the ACUPCC (10 to 50 percent). This varied widely between commuter vs. residential campuses. Finding creative and convenient transit solutions is an important aspect of any campus carbon plan. Most campuses can benefit from strategies such as Zip or Flex Cars, purchasing or converting campus vehicles to use alternative fuels, and developing and encouraging the use of public or campus transit.

Maine’s College of the Atlantic (COA, www.coa.edu), the first and only campus to declare itself “carbon neutral,” followed the ACUPCC recommendations. To offset their carbon footprint of 1,990.4 tons per year, COA will purchase its electricity from a hydroelectric generator, resulting in an annual carbon reduction of 450 tons; work to improve energy efficiency and reduce energy consumption in existing buildings; and encourage alternative commuting methods for both faculty and students. The remainder of their footprint will be offset by investing in a greenhouse gas reduction project.    

Though small, COA provides an example of how carbon neutrality can be achieved. It is highly unlikely that any campus will be able to neutralize its carbon footprint through internal activities alone. Retaining flexibility and planning for the implementation of future technologies in building design and campus energy generation will be key to self-neutralizing campus emissions. For now, campuses should do what they can to maximize efficiencies and look for certified carbon offsets to balance the remainder of their footprints. Depending on when your campus chooses to declare its carbon neutrality, more efficiencies can be put into place, thereby reducing the amount of purchased offsets required.

Peter Doo, AIA, LEED-AP, president, and Lorraine Doo, MPH, LEED-AP, work witth Doo Consulting, LLC, a company actively engaged in facilitating sustainable business practices, high performance buildings, and emerging green building initiatives.

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