Colleges Go Carbon Neutral

Strategies from carbon neutral football to capturing methane from hog farms.

November 30, 2009, 4:00 PM

Dec. 1, 2009— -- The spirit of college is often embedded in a university's colors, and while pigments vary from campus to campus, college officials across the country hope to some day have one color in common -- a sustainable green.

Just recently, Duke University joined more than 600 universities in releasing its Climate Action Plan, a comprehensive blueprint that includes a target date and interim milestones for achieving carbon neutrality.

Duke's efforts are part of the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, an effort to address global warming formed in December 2006 by the presidents of 12 universities.

(That same year the term "carbon neutral" was the Oxford American Dictionary's word of the year. Oxford wrote that it "involves calculating your total climate-damaging carbon emissions, reducing them where possible, and then balancing your remaining emissions, often by purchasing a carbon offset: paying to plant new trees or investing in 'green' technologies such as solar and wind power.")

Duke has set its goal for 2024, the 100th anniversary of James B. Duke's Indenture of Trust that established the institution.

The 2007 Greenhouse Gas inventory showed that three-quarters of the university's emissions from that year came from electrical energy usage and the campus steam plant, with the remaining from transportation, including air travel and its bus system. The university's CAP projected Duke's greenhouse gas emissions would rise by 28 percent over the next 40 years if it followed a "business as usual" model.

With its CAP, Duke aims to reach climate neutrality first by cutting its emissions levels by 45 percent through energy efficiency and reduction. Recommendations include replacing several buses with hybrid versions, discontinuing the use of coal and an increased use of teleconferencing as an alternative to employee air travel. Duke also plans to expand programs that support students with interest in the environment.

After the university reduces its emissions to that level, it will mitigate the remaining 55 percent by investing in regional carbon offset programs, such as capturing methane gas from hog farms in eastern North Carolina, according to the CAP.

"Tackling the complex problem of climate change here at Duke not only benefits this institution but society as a whole," said Tavey Capps, director of environmental sustainability.

Committing to Carbon Neutrality on Campus

Fahmida Ahmed, manager of sustainability programs at Stanford University, said universities should have a short-term focus of being able to prove that their initiatives will reduce emissions.

"Making a commitment is important," Ahmed said. "But knowing how to get there is infinitely more important."

CAPs vary according to the size of the institution, financial resources and current energy consumption.

Syracuse University, which released its plan two months ago although it signed on in 2007, hopes to reach carbon neutrality by 2040.

Tim Sweet, Syracuse's director of energy and computing management, said the school designed its plan in a "fiscally responsible manner" to reduce emissions while maintaining a net positive cash flow. Syracuse plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 40 percent by 2030 and will achieve carbon neutrality in the remaining 10 years.

"I'm very comfortable with that number," Sweet said. "We're probably going to meet or beat that date."

Syracuse's CAP includes the expanded use of videoconferencing, increasing the use of alternative-fuel vehicles, and improving water conservation across campus.

Like Duke, Syracuse will not rely only on professors and administrators but on students as well. The university intends to involve students in the analysis process to help identify retrofit projects that will make buildings more energy efficient and other sustainable projects that will eventually lead to carbon neutrality.

"Reducing carbon emissions at Syracuse is a drop in the bucket for the world," Sweet said. "Our students going out and helping the rest of the businesses around the world has a much more profound impact."

Once universities have increased energy efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions throughout their own campuses, the next step toward achieving a net zero carbon emission level will be carbon offsets. Capturing methane gas is just one example.

"You plant a tree which absorbs carbon ... or you make a home more energy efficient so it's producing less carbon," said Anna Prizzia, director of the University of Florida's Office of Sustainability.

Carbon Neutral Football Games

The University of Florida's Gators boasted the nation's first carbon neutral home football game in 2007 and expanded that achievement to the season the following year.

To reach that goal, the athletics program, with the help of the Florida Forestry Association and the Environmental Defense Fund, arranged for approximately 18 acres of privately owned land in North Florida to be set aside for a pine plantation forest.

To offset total carbon emissions -- from travelling fans, stadium operation, and team lodging -- for that single football game, the forest will need to be managed for 10 years.

Last year, the football program partnered with the Neutral Gator Initiative, a non-profit that funds local carbon reduction projects, to achieve carbon neutrality for an entire football season. As part of the project, volunteers went to low-income areas of Gainesville, offering energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs to the residents.

To expand the efforts, every third Saturday, volunteers partner with experienced members to provide low-flow showerheads, kitchen and bathroom aerators, hot water pipe insulators, and other retrofits.

Jacob Cravey, director of Neutral Gator, said the organization has completed more than 80 retrofits and expects to finish 200 by the end of the season.

"We are educating a Gator Nation one game at a time by using athletics as a vehicle to raise awareness about living a low-impact lifestyle," he said. contributor Adam Yosim is a member of the University of North Carolina's ABC News On Campus bureau.