The State of the College’s Carbon–Literally

At the end of Block 7, I sat down with Ian Johnson, the Colorado College Director of Sustainability to ask him about the college’s goals for carbon neutrality and the potential use of carbon offsets to get there. I learned that CC’s road to carbon neutrality thus far has been anything but smooth, and that it would be nearly impossible to get to carbon neutrality without the use of offsets. I also learned that renewable energy certificates—intangible credits which correlate to renewable energy fed into power grids—cause more legitimate emissions reductions if they are bought close to home, even though we could technically manage buying them elsewhere. Finally, I learned that there is potential for carbon offsets in the city of Colorado Springs which, though logistically and legally difficult to implement, could benefit CC, the city, and the environment in cost-effective ways.

CC’s goal is to be carbon neutral by 2020, according to public statements and the college’s “Strategic Plan.” Thus far, we have reduced our emissions by 19 percent since 2008. “The trajectory we’re on right now is not the downward slope we need in order to hit that date, so there was some consideration around changing that date,” Johnson said.  “I think that sends the wrong message. These are stretch goals, and we’re really trying to lead the pack. Sometimes we miss our mark, and I think that’s ok… If we miss it and make it by 2022 or 2025, that’s probably a win… I think the idea of setting these lofty goals, and sometimes failing, that’s part of the process, right?”

To get to carbon neutrality, CC is going to have to use carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates, Johnson told me, especially as we pursue a broad definition of what it means to be ‘carbon neutral.’ There are three scopes of institutional greenhouse gas emissions: Scope 1 applies to any emissions that we produce on campus. Scope 2 focuses on the emissions generated by power that CC buys from the electrical grid, which is a pressing issue because much of that power comes from the Martin Drake coal-fired power plant downtown. Scope 3 applies to any emissions associated with the school, such as professors commuting to and from work or airline travel for business. Traditional carbon offsets apply to Scopes 1 and 3; RECs apply to Scope 2.

Johnson believes that to truly offset our Scope 2 emissions, we should be buying RECs locally. “If we were to buy U.S. based green power that doesn’t necessarily offset everything, it’s legally allowed,” Johnson said. “But morally, are we having the right effect that we should have?” He went on to explain that this is the case because different regions of the country produce energy with different carbon intensities; because Colorado and Wyoming have a lot of coal, CC is located in one of the most carbon intense electrical grids in the country. CC purchases RECs by the unit of energy, such as megawatt hours. If CC buys a certain number of megawatt hours in California to offset the megawatt hours used in Colorado, we won’t actually be offsetting all of our emissions because a megawatt hour of electricity produced in Colorado emits many more greenhouse gases than a megawatt hour of electricity produced in California. Legally, we could claim carbon neutrality even if  RECs are purchased from California, but it would be a cop out.

The problem for the school is that RECs nearby are much more expensive than almost anywhere else in the U.S. “We go from $0.49 per REC per megawatt hour overall in the U.S. to $6 for our region,” Johnson explained. “So we want to be as local as possible but it’s 10 times the cost.” However, if the school wants to reach true carbon neutrality, it should only buy RECs in the Colorado region.

For Scopes 1 and 3, we will need to use more traditional offsets. The college is looking primarily at landfill gas destruction for these. Landfills produce methane gas, which has 25 times the earth warming power of carbon dioxide. We can pay companies to install flares that convert methane to carbon dioxide before it’s released, and then count those emissions reductions as an offset.

There is potential for innovative offsets that link CC and the city of Colorado Springs directly, saving both organizations money and helping to reduce emissions. I talked to political science professor Corina McKendry, who told me about her idea for local offsets. She explained that the city is interested in installing LED street lights, but they don’t have the capital to do it, even though it would save them money in the long run. She proposed that CC subsidize, then receive a portion of the city’s savings to get a return on the investment. This way CC gets credit for the emissions reduction without losing money, and the city saves money on electricity without any upfront costs. McKendry added that she does not “know all of the legal ramifications, which could be difficult,” but she still believes it is an idea worth pursuing.

Johnson tried a similar type of project a few years ago through rooftop solar panels on local public schools. The Board of Trustees was not comfortable with such a non-traditional type of investment, so they did not approve funding for the project. However, regarding LED lights Johnson said he thought CC could use money from the Campus Sustainability Council or the Investment Club— because they are smaller scale—circumventing the board. This type of project could “demonstrate that these things are working and then [we could] build up from there,” said Johnson.

It is easy to be cynical and claim that the college is not truly committed to sustainability as we anticipate falling short of carbon neutrality by 2020. But the reality is that carbon neutrality is a massive project that was bound to hit roadblocks, especially given our location.  While we should absolutely hold our administration to their commitments and ensure that they are truly doing everything they can to reach our goals, we should also realize that there are incredible opportunities for student innovation and leadership to make our lofty goals a reality—and that this is where our primary focus should be.

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