Colorado College Becomes Eighth Carbon Neutral Institution in the US — Now What?

By Isabel Hicks

Environmental scientist and Provost of Colorado College Alan Townsend is hopeful. Although this is not an adjective one would typically use to describe the fight against anthropogenic climate change, Townsend seems justified in his mindset.   

Photo by Daniel Sarché

“I’ve never seen what I’ve seen in the last year or two in terms of a global mobilization of young people making a difference and changing the conversation,” he said. 

The youth-led “Sunrise” movement and Greta Thunberg’s cries of outrage have skyrocketed in impact this past year. People are demanding nation-wide bans on plastic bags and straws. Young people are fundraising for disasters associated with climate change such as unprecedented wildfire in Australia. People are not only taking notice of climate destabilization: they are also demanding their voices be heard.  

That said, this is only the beginning. On Jan. 1, 2020, CC became one of eight carbon-neutral institutions in the U.S. — but, as Townsend reminds us “this is only just a milepost along a much longer road.”   

Colorado College committed to becoming carbon neutral in 2009 when then-president Richard Celeste signed the Second Nature Carbon Commitment. In roughly a decade, CC has cut on-site emissions by 75%, shifted to 100% renewable energy, and counteracted emissions the college does not directly control through carbon offsets. 

The institution’s achievement is distinct because CC has seen a greater emission reduction on campus reliant on fewer carbon offsets than any other carbon neutral school, all while expanding infrastructure by 10% in the last decade. 

Alongside CC’s achievement is the widespread misunderstanding that the college is not truly carbon neutral because some of its emissions are counteracted by carbon offsets.

Colorado College categorizes its emissions in three different scopes. Scope One is the direct emissions that are physically produced on campus. These include burning fossil fuels for central heating and fuels that power college-owned vehicles. Scope Two refers to emissions produced by the electricity that CC purchases to power its campus. Scope Three includes all other indirect emissions that are not controlled or owned by CC, but still impact the carbon footprint. These include student air travel and vehicular transportation to campus and for block breaks, study abroad, and paper purchasing, among others. 

To be carbon neutral is to have zero net emissions. Since baseline year 2008, CC has cut its on-site (Scope One) emissions by 75% through transitioning to more efficient infrastructure, on-site renewable energy, and renewable energy purchases. To reduce this category by 100% at this time is nearly impossible for any institution and would come at an enormous upfront cost.

As of Jan. 1, CC’s Scope Two emissions (those produced from purchased electricity) have dropped to zero, as the energy CC purchases is 100% solar-generated. The remaining 25% of Scope One emissions and all of Scope Three emissions are counteracted by carbon offsets. 

A carbon offset is an intentional investment into a project that actively reduces greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. Colorado College specifically invests in a methane destruction project at the Larimer County landfill that prevents methane from entering the atmosphere.  

Offsetting emissions is a valuable carbon sequestration strategy because such investments enable projects that would not otherwise exist. Colorado College’s Office of Sustainability explains that “offsets are fully verified, must meet multiple criteria, and must pass rigorous peer review and verification standards to ensure that they have real impacts.” 

So yes, CC becoming carbon neutral is a very big deal (and no, we did not cheat). But it is crucial to not let this milestone be the end of the conversation. That is why President Tiefenthaler and the Board of Trustees created the Climate Change Task Force, a group of faculty, staff, students, and trustees all working to answer the question: so now what? 

Townsend, the leader of this group, explained how they were asked to think about four things. 

The first is “continuing to think about how we can improve on the operations standpoint…[and] cut our emissions. The biggest piece of our emissions is now from Scope Three, the offset stuff. That’s one of the things we’re trying to think through, is how to combat that.”

The other initiatives of the task force are to “think about what [the campus should] be doing in terms of providing education and opportunities [for students around climate change] … A third piece is to think about our investment policy, and a fourth is to think about how we maximize our leadership and influence beyond campus.”               

Although preliminary, Townsend explained that this project is around a two-year effort with the end goal of producing a report of recommendations to give to the President and the Board of Trustees. 

What are the next steps for students who are not on this climate task force? Townsend and Professor Mark Smith, an economist who works closely with environmental issues, have similar answers. 

“I think the more everybody talks about [this accomplishment], the better it is. The power of just talking about this with people you know shouldn’t be underestimated,” Townsend said. 

Professor Smith urged “people to talk about this. Let’s raise the profile of the conversation so that people are generating ideas.” 

Townsend and Smith both emphasize the importance of spreading CC’s story to a larger audience. Townsend explains that “showing the world an institution of this size and complexity … can make cuts this deep and reach carbon neutrality in a decade — that’s a huge deal, because it really does provide a roadmap to others that it’s possible … to say this can be done, and here are some ways that it can be done … The viral effect could be really big, bigger than anything else we’ve done.” 

Professor Smith knows that CC’s commitment to sustainability is far from over. When asked about the next best steps for the institution, Smith said, “I think that we can be very intentional about our food program because it’s an opportunity to teach people … Maybe you’re starting just by putting the carbon content on different dishes. I think that part of the educational process is getting people to understand how their individual behavior affects greenhouse gas reduction.” 

A recently published report by the Climate Disclosure Project exposed that a mere 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. With this information, it can be difficult for one to buy into the rhetoric that individual change will combat rising temperatures. But that should not discredit the importance behind engaging in environmentally conscious behavior. 

“We are training you for the future. We want you to think about, okay, it’s not going to make a big difference, but I’m going to walk to work,” Smith sid. “We talk about anti-racism — is that going to change the country? No, but it’s going to create a new cohort of students who are aware of the issues, who bring that perspective to their work … We could become a carbon sink and it wouldn’t make a difference. But when we talk about [climate issues], we’re getting somewhere.” 

Our polarized political climate is repeatedly at the heart of discouragement in terms of climate action. Too often climate change becomes a partisan issue, which stands in the way of passing policy at the national level. How does one fight that? 

“It’s really important to make deliberate attempts to not just preach to the choir,” Townsend said. “And to reach out to those who may think that it’s all a hoax, and it’s really important to do that by finding your points of commonality first. Because we all have them … [People change their mind when] they find that point of entry first from something else and go from there.” 

Townsend added, “a hopeful sign is that the polarization around climate by political affiliation is way stronger for older generations than it is for young people. It’s really changing, and those data are out there too.”

Colorado College is now carbon neutral, and that truly is something to celebrate. But don’t let this be the end of the conversation. 

“There are two ways you can look at [climate change],” Townsend said. “You can look at it as ‘I’m terrified’, or you can look at it as you’re all part of a generation that has an opportunity to do something truly monumental … What could be more inspiring than that?”

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