Growing Green: Colorado College’s Massive Achievement of Carbon Neutrality

By Emily Kressley

Upon my arrival at Colorado College in 2016, rumors swirled about how the college would be carbon neutral by 2020, an initiative launched in 2009. At the time, it seemed like a pipe dream, a massive endeavor that would still be impressive even when we inevitably fell short. Yet upon my return from the winter break for my final semester at CC, the college had met its goal and had become the first college in the Rocky Mountain region to be carbon neutral. 

One reason that this undertaking was so intimidating is that there is no guidebook on how to best go about achieving neutrality. 

Zach Benevento ’21, Impact Awareness and Progress Planner Intern of the Office of Sustainability, commented, “We are the eighth academic institution to go carbon neutral in the U.S., which is really cool since hundreds of schools have committed to it but have not yet succeeded. Of the eight carbon neutral schools, we were able to do it with the least carbon offsets and the most on campus reductions, only matched by American University.” 

Director of Sustainability Ian Johnson said in an interview with the Gazette that over the past decade, campus emissions have been reduced by 75%. This is especially impressive considering that CC has increased its building footprint by over 10% in that same time period. These advances towards emission reductions were possible by considering green initiatives in building plans, such as the underground geothermal energy project powering Tutt Library, or the sustainable architecture and energy systems of East Campus Housing.

“Achieving carbon neutrality in the way that we have is a massive achievement — I’m not sure how many people understand how significant the progress that we’ve made is, so it is really important that we communicate this accomplishment properly,” said Paige Shetty ’20, Greenhouse Gas Inventory Intern. “We are setting a model for other higher education institutions, but at the same time we are still asking what more we can do, and what’s next for us as a college.”

Colorado College has created scalable strategies that other institutions can adapt and apply, yet the college faced some unique barriers due to its location in a carbon intensive energy grid. The city of Colorado Springs has two operating coal plants and therefore a larger carbon footprint than a grid with more renewable sources. Therefore, the college collaborated with the city utilities to craft a renewable power purchasing agreement.

“Environmental issues are vast, daunting, and complex, but by working together as a community and catalyzing small change at the local level, we can have big impacts,” noted Quinn Yawger ’20, Green Programs Intern at the Office of Sustainability. “The achievement of this goal is incredibly inspiring to me and the office as a whole because it provides an example of what we are capable of.”

A sentiment repeated over and over by many involved in pushing CC to carbon neutrality was that they didn’t simply want to buy the status through offsets. Offsets were necessary but remain secondary to on-campus initiatives. “We still have many areas in which we can improve, namely, travel emissions, food purchasing, and aligning our endowment practices with our campus commitments,” said Benevento.

Part of the work going forward will involve deciding how to localize offset projects and make them more multifaceted and innovative. One example of a current initiative is an investment in the Larimer Country landfill methane destruction project in Northern Colorado. 

Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas due to the band saturation effect, meaning that small increases of methane have a disproportionately negative effect as compared to gases like carbon dioxide that have a much higher concentration in the atmosphere already. The project aims to prevent methane from entering the atmosphere and instead divert it directly to generate electricity in the Larimer community. 

Climate change is a defining issue for our generation, one that affects human health, access to clean air, water, and food systems, and an issue that further aggravates socioeconomic disparities and environmental justice. The college’s work towards carbon neutrality fits in with larger aspirations of adapting to be more resilient in an uncertain future. A Climate Change task force led by Provost Alan Townsend has been assembled for a “What’s Next” project to maximize positive social benefits for the school and local community, and to hold the college accountable for continuing to be a front runner in sustainability for the region. 

Emily Kressley

Emily Kressley

Emily, class of 2020, is an environmental policy major originally from Essex, Conn. While she is drawn to Colorado for its mountains and skiing, she has found strong communities within the CC Cutthroat rugby team, Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and, of course, The Catalyst staff.

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