Some institutions commit to hiring celebrity faculty and some to building winning sports teams, but a small college in Bar Harbor, Maine is doing its best to slow global warming. With help from its students, all of whom major in human ecology, College of the Atlantic has resolved to fully mitigate its future effect on climate change by reducing use of fossil fuels and offsetting any carbon emissions with investments in renewable energy. College officials say the policy is the first of its kind for an institution of higher education.
“Being a big institution may have advantages, but moving quickly to address major social and environmental challenges isn't always one of them,” said David Malakoff, who graduated from the college in 1986 and is science correspondent for National Public Radio. “So, we may not have a football team and a marching band, but we'll be the first carbon neutral campus on the planet."
"College of the Atlantic's net-zero carbon emissions plan is scientifically sound, simple to understand and straightforward to implement," said Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in a news release released by the college.
The college's president, David Hales, said that the commitment will serve as a a model for other institutions to follow, but also as a learning tool for its fewer than 300 students. “Students will be getting firsthand, real world experience handling finances, and the educational value of this type of experience is just tremendous,” he said.
Hale recently took over as president of College of the Atlantic  and his first request to the trustees was to achieve 100 percent reliance on renewable energy by 2015. Before coming to the college, Hale served as the counsel for sustainability policy at the Worldwatch Institute, so he is no stranger to the intricacies of environmental issues. Still, he argues that COA’s new venture is fairly simple to carry out and will not be as costly as some might suspect.
“I am hopeful that other administrators can see that this is not that complex or expensive,” he says. “Once they understand that, we’ll see others come along.”
In fact, much of the groundwork for creating the new policy was laid before Hale arrived. For the last year, a senior, John Deans, has been working to figure out how much carbon College of the Atlantic emits into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned to create the electricity it uses. The job was not easy and Deans says he is still fiddling with the numbers.
He first had to call the power company and find out how much electricity the college buys. Each building has its own meter, and after poring over reports on electricity use for each building, Dean says he determined that the college’s annual consumption is 1 million kilowatt hours. He then partnered with a nonprofit group, Clean Air-Cool Planet , to calculate the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to create that much electricity.
The college is working hard to lower its own electricity consumption, but emissions are a global, not a local, problem, so they can be “offset” by lowering emissions elsewhere. In this case, the college decided to lower greenhouse gases by paying for windmills that are generating electricity in South Dakota. This pays for the costs of carbon pollution by the college and also helps spur the market in renewable energy.
“None of this stuff is perfect, but it does push the market in the right direction,” said Deans. The college expects to spend no more than $30,000 a year for the offset program.
Deans said that College of the Atlantic is now emissions neutral for its electricity use, and that the next step is to examine other fossil fuel consumption such as the gasoline that staff and faculty members and students use to travel to campus. “We want to be at net zero for emissions by 2015,” he said. A fellow student is now gathering information from faculty on their commuting habits and their cars’ fuel efficiency.
Deans is also a member of his campus’s Generation Kyoto  affiliate, and he hopes that other students will lobby their administrators to enact their own carbon neutral programs. Generations is a newly formed student activist movement created to address the problem of climate change.
Hales added that the American Council on Renewable Energy has formed a higher education committee  that is setting two goals for universities and colleges by 2010. First, it wants 100 institutions to begin investing 10 percent of their endowments into funds that support renewable energy. Second, the group is asking these same universities to ensure that they purchase only renewable energy by the same date.
Noting that students are becoming more aware of the potential costs from climate change and the need to change patterns of energy use, Hales added, “This will have not only an educational purpose but will also save all of us more money in the long run.”