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.
Ten Broek laid out the ways in which he will attempt to do so, which nicely complement the waste stream reduction program:
“First we avoid emissions where we can, by biking or walking rather than taking a car. We will reduce emissions where we can, by making buildings more energy efficient, installing newer high efficiency heating systems,” he said. “We’re moving to renewable fuels. For example, we’re starting construction this spring on a new 50 bed student housing complex. It will be heated–space and hot water–with wood pellet boilers, burning renewable fuel, rather than fossil fuel. The pellets are made from sawdust and waste materials so we’re taking a waste product and making it useful.”
Student environmental activists are responding enthusiastically. Senior Alex Fletcher from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, is the main coordinator on campus for SustainUS (which is, according to its website an “organization of young people advancing sustainable development and youth empowerment in the United States.”) In November he will travel to Nairobi for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto protocol, along with seven other COA students.
Fletcher said that despite his general satisfaction with the program and level of student involvement in its conception and implementation, he had some initial concerns about the green investment side of the equation. With the potential for the university to make money off the program through return on its investments in the energy markets comes the temptation to focus on that Fletcher said.
“Offsets are not a perfect solution. The focus is to eliminate emissions, not offset them, but initially we’ll need to do more offsetting.” Ultimately, while Fletcher is very pleased with the COA administration (and what student environmental activist wouldn’t be?) he said, “It is up to students and the community to make sure this thing works in a meaningful way and isn’t just hot air.” No pun intended. And, when it comes to sustainability, there is always room for improvement. Fletcher said once this program is up and running the student body will have to engage the administration in “thinking about new challenges, like where our food comes from and how far it travels.”
Fletcher also hopes that COA’s emissions neutral program will be used as model elsewhere. “Considering the lack of commitment to reducing greenhouse gases from the national government, it’s up to communities, cities and states,” he elaborated. But as to whether that will happen, Hales acknowledged, “Every campus has a slightly different challenge.”
But Hales hastened to add that “large campuses also have more resources.” And he takes the position that if stakeholders at other universities simply seek to hold their school accountable for its environmental impact, environmentalists will win policy arguments on moral and practical grounds. “As an environmentalist I expect General Motors to internalize its environmental cost. I expect the University of California to do the same thing…. Sure it will cost a little money initially, but in the long run it will save [through greater efficiency]. It takes an investment but it will be recovered over the years. I think it’s good business, good policy, and it’s the right thing to do.”