Rethinking Carbon Neutrality in Higher Education

Colleges can’t view it as the end goal to responding effectively to the climate crisis, argue Alex Barron, Aaron Strong and Lucy Metz, who offer five other recommendations for action.

October 27, 2021
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Fourteen years ago last month, 336 higher education institutions signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, pledging to “achiev[e] carbon neutrality as soon as possible.” That pledge acknowledged that climate impacts will continue to worsen as long as more greenhouse gas emissions enter the atmosphere than leave it. Since then, over 800 U.S. colleges and universities have signed the commitment, and many countries and businesses have followed with their own carbon-neutrality commitments.

Higher education commitments to neutrality were built around a framework developed in the early 2000s to help businesses take early climate action. That framework focuses on direct fossil fuel use and purchased electricity, allowing institutions to buy off-site reductions on a voluntary market -- including carbon “offsets” -- to balance out continuing emissions and thus achieve “net” neutrality. But is net carbon neutrality, and an approach to it developed at the turn of the century, really the most productive focus for institutional climate action?

To understand how such commitments are working in practice, we studied 11 American higher education institutions that have already announced achieving carbon neutrality. We found that while it is a potentially useful milestone, those of us at colleges and universities cannot view carbon neutrality as the end goal if we want to respond effectively to the climate crisis. We need to be both more thoughtful and more aggressive in our climate actions.

First, we need to refocus on plans to stop burning fossil fuels. Our peer-reviewed analysis reveals that neutrality commitments do not guarantee reductions in on-site fossil fuel use, with three of 11 institutions slightly increasing those emissions, despite being carbon neutral. Many colleges and universities are effectively small cities with a tremendous opportunity to showcase what a climate-friendly community can be, from geothermal heat to electric lawn care. We need to commit to decarbonization with plans and deadlines for eliminating fossil fuel combustion on our campuses.

For example, Bowdoin College -- already net carbon neutral -- has recently announced that its next campus energy plan will focus on electrifying campus heating, its largest source of emissions. A clear decarbonization plan also means institutions can avoid wasting money on infrastructure like steam systems that may not be compatible with a zero-emissions future.

Second, we in higher education must think about what we burn and what we buy. The initial framework for neutrality paid less attention to the admittedly complex emissions attributable to purchasing. But, in fact, purchasing emissions can be the largest share of an institution’s overall climate impact. Institutions should look for creative and strategic opportunities in their choice of construction materials, food procurement and dining, and other purchasing. They also need to ensure that they are managing campus-owned land in climate-friendly ways.

Third, we need to actively promote new clean electricity. Eight of the 11 institutions we studied “neutralized” their emissions from purchased electricity with at least some “unbundled” renewable electricity certificates, or RECs. Institutions can buy RECs separately from any power purchase agreement, but peer-reviewed research suggests those certificates may not have a net impact on emissions. For now, long-term power purchase agreements that enable investment in new renewable energy are a good step forward. But the best way to reduce emissions from this sector is for states and/or the federal government to develop policies that rapidly decarbonize the electricity grid, and higher education institutions need to look for opportunities to support those larger policy shifts.

Fourth, we need to be clear-eyed about the risks and trade-offs with offsets, which we found in our study to be the single largest source of emission reductions claimed by schools. This is troubling, because ensuring that offsets actually reduce emissions is challenging, and heavy offset use can delay investments in eliminating fossil fuel combustion. Moreover, in some cases, offsets can leave vulnerable communities exposed to air pollution by allowing local sources of pollution to continue to emit while paying for greenhouse gas reductions that may be on the other side of the planet.

After setting a firm plan for decarbonization that will minimize the need for offsets, colleges and universities should leverage their research strengths to find innovative and effective ways to reduce emissions from challenging sources like land use. For example, the University of California system’s Climate Neutrality Initiative has put out a request for ideas, leveraging the expertise of all their researchers for approaches to reducing emissions from off-campus sources.

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Finally, we all must move faster. The Biden administration has committed the entire United States to “net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050.” Yet 60 percent of the higher education institutions with active climate commitments have carbon-neutrality dates of 2050 or later or have no deadline at all -- not to mention the thousands of colleges and universities that have not made commitments. Recent science and the climate impacts that we are already seeing make it clear that we must seek out the biggest sources of emissions on our campuses and set deadlines to eliminate them quickly.

Our goal is not to criticize the institutions we studied, especially since our analysis is just a snapshot of their continuing efforts. Carbon neutrality can still be a useful concept -- even a milestone on a pathway to decarbonization. But critiques of net zero for both countries and businesses underscore the need to make sure we focus more on the “zero” and are very careful with the “net.”

Just as COVID-19 has made it clear that schools need effective collaboration with local, state and federal governments, we in higher education need to recognize our part in the broader systems of energy, transportation and land use around us. Our emissions matter and must be eliminated, but institutions can’t be full climate leaders unless we are doing everything we can to collaborate with our communities to help our society meet our climate goals. Asking “How can our campus actions have the biggest genuine impact for emissions and equity?” is a good start.

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Alex Barron is an assistant professor of environmental science and policy at Smith College. He has previously served in climate policy roles in the Obama and Biden administrations. Aaron Strong is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Hamilton College. Lucy Metz is an undergraduate engineering science major at Smith College.

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