How colleges can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions

by Abby Simpson

It is apparent that to prevent the worst effects from climate change, the Earth’s temperature must stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius.1  But even at current rates we are witnessing increased ocean temperatures, rising ocean levels, species extinction, more record hot days, and harsher weather patterns. Swift, urgent action is necessary to avoid further, irreversible damage.

Like other institutions and communities, colleges are taking action by developing climate action plans. A climate action plan (CAP) is a college’s way of moving towards a carbon neutral future and demonstrating climate leadership. It provides a framework for measuring, planning, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and for undertaking additional mitigation measures to tackle the climate crisis.

But progress is slow. As of 2019, there were only seven schools in the United States that have achieved carbon neutrality, those being American University, Colgate University, Middlebury College, University of San Francisco, Bowdoin College, Bates College, and Colby College.2  Various sectors, led by transportation, energy, and waste, contribute to a school’s carbon footprint. A variety of strategies and actions are available to reduce this footprint.

Many schools purchase carbon offsets to reduce their carbon emissions as they work to achieve carbon neutrality. Carbon offsets can be beneficial when they support projects such as “reforestation, building renewable energy, carbon-storing agricultural practices, and waste and landfill management.”3  Although useful to reduce emissions or achieve carbon neutrality, offsetting is also controversial because it can result in individuals and institutions continuing their unsustainable practices and fueling the climate crisis while paying others to reduce or absorb emissions generated elsewhere.4  Additionally, unless offsets are certified and verified, they may fail to meet the agreed emissions reduction criteria.

It is important for a college’s climate action plan to have a detailed outline which ensures the purchase of high-quality offsets that support environmental projects. Some schools have taken the following steps when developing a strategy for utilizing carbon offsets:

  1. Using carbon offsets as a last resort strategy to achieve carbon neutrality for indirect emissions such as those produced through air travel.
  2. Developing offset purchasing guidelines to ensure the school is making quality investments in off-site carbon reduction.
  3. Prioritizing locally focused projects in offset purchasing decisions.
  4. Connecting responsibility for offset payments, such as air travel offsets, with the group sponsoring the activity.5(p. 36)

A school’s energy sourcing and usage is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is important for a college’s CAP to identify and target all sources of energy related emissions. Energy related emissions can stem from sources such as heating and cooling, lighting, and purchased electricity. Colleges can reduce energy related emissions in ways that include:

  1. Establishing an energy management support team to support and implement energy conservation policies, residential energy education programs, and coordination of future studies toward long-term decarbonization.6(p. 3)
  2. Installing occupancy sensors in all rooms and corridors.7(p. 42)
  3. Establishing a LEED certified policy for all applicable construction projects and buildings.8(p. 44)
  4. Installing an energy management system to monitor and adjust heating and cooling in buildings to conserve energy while maintaining comfort.9(p. 29)
  5. Revamping existing buildings to optimize existing lighting and mechanical equipment.10(p. 29)
  6. Siting renewable energy sources across campus.11(p. 12)

Transportation is another leading contributor to a college’s greenhouse gas emissions. Commuting by faculty, staff, and students to and from campus as well as air travel for business and study abroad all contribute to transportation related emissions. Emissions produced by this sector are difficult to reduce because a college does not have direct control over them. Solutions to incorporate in a college’s CAP to reduce transportation related emissions include:

  1. Increasing significantly desirable, on-campus housing for students.12(p. 13)
  2. Subsidizing mass transit passes for employees and students that include bus and train travel.13(p. 37)
  3. Extending to employees and students who carpool parking permits and premium parking spaces at only a fraction of the usual costs, waiving all charges for carpools of four or more.14(p. 37)
  4. Enhancing infrastructure for bicycles and walking by increasing bike racks and lockers, bike sharing, discounts at local bike shops, walking and biking route maps with local businesses, and secure, covered bike storage.15(p. ES-3)
  5. Supporting electric vehicle adoption by providing free electricity at electric vehicle charging stations on campus.16(p. 14)
  6. Improving flexible work schedules for employees to promote carpooling and/or work from home opportunities.17(p. 57)
  7. Converting all campus vehicles to battery-electric powered.18(p. 14)
  8. Providing a safe evening shuttle for students and employees who live near campus or to connect to transit stops that may be difficult to reach in the evening.19(p. 38)
  9. Offering and incentivizing employees to participate in remote professional development and collaboration rather than opportunities that require travel.20(p. 19)

The waste generated by colleges is yet another contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Waste can be either solid or liquid and stem from sources such as food, water, sewage, and trash. Solutions a university should incorporate in their CAP to combat waste include:

  1. Establishing on-campus recycling and composting initiatives with waste reduction targets.21(p. 8)
  2. Increasing outreach and education about recycling and composting. Potential methods include increasing the availability and visibility of recycling and composting information, developing a recycling and composting newsletter, training student residence hall advisors on recycling and composting procedures, and increasing orientation for new employees.22(v1.2, p. 44)
  3. Starting a sustainable dining campaign to encourage students to seek out menu options with plant forward, vegetarian, vegan, and locally sourced menu options.23(p. 9)
  4. Preventing waste by reducing bottled water consumption, replacing paper towel dispensers with energy efficient hand dryers, utilizing re-usable service wear in dining centers and cafes, and establishing paperless standards.24(v1.2, p. 44)
  5. Capturing rainwater in cisterns to be used for toilet flushing and irrigation.25
  6. Installing sink fixtures that turn off water automatically.26

If colleges establish or revamp their climate action plans and set a near-term goal for climate neutrality, they can be the leaders for their students, faculty, and surrounding community. It is important that they focus on all of the sectors that emit carbon, especially such leading contributors as transportation, energy, and waste. If carbon offsets are part of the mix, they should be researched carefully and used sparingly. By taking the lead and adopting swift measures, colleges can do their part in mitigating the ever-intensifying climate crisis.

Abby Simpson is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.


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