In 2007, then UMass president Jack M. Wilson took a huge step forward for campus sustainability. He signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which commits institutions to implementing plans for carbon neutrality. Since then, the five UMass university campuses have made enormous progress towards reaching this goal. In particular, UMass Amherst has demonstrated impressive environmental leadership and received a Massachusetts Leading by Example award for achieving a 26 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions three years ahead of its 2012 goal.
Many Massachusetts colleges and universities have proven their commitment to achieve carbon neutrality. As of 2014, 48 schools across the Commonwealth—including all 29 public institutions— have signed the commitment. 684 institutions have signed it nationwide. All over the country, colleges and universities are moving climate change up on their priority lists and taking the steps necessary to declare their institutions carbon neutral. Even colleges and universities that have not signed on are reducing their footprints.
Undoubtedly, these efforts are important for a clean energy future. But how exactly are institutions measuring their claims? Today, can a college or university really be “carbon neutral?”
There’s no simple answer. “Any claim to carbon neutrality, or even carbon savings, should be very critically examined,” says Nachy Kanfer, Coordinator of the Sierra Club’s “Campuses Beyond Coal” campaign.
The truth is that achieving carbon neutrality is a complex goal; there are many ways to define neutrality and a number of factors determine the legitimacy of these claims. Essentially, a college or university can claim carbon neutrality if it removes the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it puts in, resulting in a net zero carbon foot print. To date, no institution has been able to reduce the use of fossil fuels 100% on campus.
In order to reach carbon neutrality, a school must combine on-campus efforts with carbon offsets. A school can reduce its use of fossil fuels through behavior change, energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. To offset the remaining carbon emissions, it can purchase carbon offsets in the form of “Renewable Energy Certificates” (RECs), which are financial instruments based on investments in renewable energy initiatives – off-campus – that reduce net CO2 emissions from electricity production.
However, the way schools measure their carbon emissions is somewhat ambiguous. There is no exact science and criteria vary by school. For example, certain daily activities that emit carbon, like travel, are not always calculated. Some schools only include specific college funded travel, excluding travel funded through student activities or grants.
The bottom line is that colleges and universities should continue to focus on their environmental impact and work diligently to minimize their carbon footprints. Their goals to reach carbon neutrality are exciting and promising steps for a clean energy future. But, it’s still important to question and think critically about what it means when a campus declares itself carbon neutral.
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