October 19, 2006
The environmental movement received a jolt that could reverberate across the country last Friday when new College of the Atlantic (COA) president David Hales announced a commitment to making the school a “Net-zero” emitter of greenhouse gases. If institutions across the country begin to follow suit, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions–and the concomitant reduction in global warming–could be significant.
Hales had requested that the COA Board of Trustees pass two resolutions; one to reduce carbon emissions to the lowest possible amount, and another to offset emissions by making a commensurate financial investment in renewable energy. While Hales acknowledged that the latter initially sounded like an accounting trick to “even out” emissions to some skeptics on the board and in the student body, he explained how the system will work to actually reach a net zero of emissions for the school.
“If we take our funds and provide a factory [with] a natural energy resource instead of burning gas, there’s an identifiable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” he told Campus Progress. “So we can invest enough that we reduce emissions elsewhere by the same amount as our total.” In other words, whatever COA measures its total emissions as annually, it can reduce its emissions by the same amount by, say, investing in a factory in India to switch from fossil fuel to renewable energy. And, unlike some types of pollution, the problems created by greenhouse gas emissions are not localized. So the equivalent reduction in emissions that COA buys is just as effective halfway around the world from its Bar Harbor, Maine campus.
Hales emphasized, though, that the goal is not merely to “buy your way out of emissions, because then you get the overall environmental value but lose the educational value.” The school is integrating all three major components of the effort to go emissions neutral into the curriculum. One group of students will work on measuring emissions, which they define broadly to include not just the campus itself but the fossil fuels burned to bring people there. Another group will work on how to reduce those emissions, and a third will be responsible for investing the concomitant endowment funds to neutralize the emissions.
Craig Ten Broek, COA’s Director of Sustainability, is responsible for managing this project. A 30-year veteran of the federal government who finished his career as a policy director with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Ten Broek boasted that his campus is uniquely well-suited to this challenge. With only 300 students who all major in human ecology, COA has had a campus-wide commitment to environmental sustainability since its founding in 1969. As Ten Broek noted, COA already had a program in place to eliminate waste. But Hales argued, “It’s very important to minimize waste stream and we still do. But zero waste doesn’t make sense. That last two or three percent is incredibly expensive.” So Hales decided to expand the focus to emissions.