This university says it cut emissions by 19% since 2019. Was it all changes in commuting?

As the climate movement has grown, more attention has been paid to colleges’ significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Many have tried to counter contributions with sustainability initiatives, with varying results. Vanderbilt University, a private research university in Nashville, Tennessee, in November announced a big cut, saying that it reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 19% since the fiscal year that began in July 2019. 

Emissions per square foot have dropped 23%, despite a growth in building space. The university also achieved carbon neutrality in 2020, in part by purchasing carbon offsets, which colleges and other organizations use to cancel out their own emissions by putting money into outside projects intended to reduce emissions.

While Vanderbilt has an endowment of more than $10 billion and resources to dedicate to such a greenhouse gas reduction, experts say huge spending isn’t necessary for every college that wants to make an impact. Indeed, colleges and universities that top an annual sustainability index from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education are in many cases public institutions — like North Seattle College, New Hampshire’s Keene State College, Michigan’s Grand Valley State University, and Arizona State University. 

We looked at the specific ways Vanderbilt said it managed its emissions reduction and asked experts if they might be options for other colleges.

Energy sources

When talking about greenhouse gas emissions, energy use is typically top of mind. At Vanderbilt, natural gas and purchased electricity were responsible for about 80% of greenhouse gas emissions in the fiscal year ending in June 2022.

The campus has an on-site natural gas power plant that meets the university’s steam needs, as well as 29% of its electricity needs. But the other 71% of its electricity needs are met by purchased electricity. 

In 2019, Vanderbilt made an agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority to purchase renewable energy through two solar farms. The farms are yet to be built, but the university anticipates the agreement will mitigate 70% of emissions from electricity generation by the end of this year, and 100% by 2024. 

Julian Dautremont, cofounder and director of programs at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, doesn’t specifically make recommendations to colleges. But, he said, acquiring renewable energy through power purchase agreements can sometimes be cheaper than buying electricity regularly through a utility company. Purchasing contracts also typically offer a predictable rate. 

“Switching to renewables can often be a very good investment, ” he said. “Not always. It’s dependent on context and what’s available to you.”

Technically speaking, the electrons that are delivered may not be the ones that were generated via renewable energy, Dautremont said. But colleges will still be supporting renewable energy and can consider their emissions decreased. 

Energy efficiency

Altering campus facilities to require less energy is another move that colleges and universities might consider, according to Andrea George, Vanderbilt’s assistant vice chancellor for environmental health, safety and sustainability. That includes projects to upgrade lighting and insulation and replace windows.

“We would recommend to other universities to invest in energy efficiency, as the return on investment is often quick, and significant carbon savings can be achieved,” George said via email. “Every dollar not being spent on an electricity bill is a dollar that can be used for a university’s core mission or be reinvested in additional energy saving measures.”

Dautremont similarly said energy-efficient equipment and facilities can meet the dual goals of reducing emissions and saving a campus money. 

“On any given campus, unless they have a really small program, most still have opportunities for energy savings — new LED lightbulbs and other more efficient equipment, removing outdated equipment and consolidating,” Dautremont said. “Instead of everybody having a printer in their office, there are centralized printers everybody can use. That saves energy.”

Commuting and travel

Vanderbilt’s two-year emissions reduction of 19% follows a larger recent drop. The university’s emissions fell 32% from fiscal 2018 to 2020 — a time period that started before the pandemic but ended at the height of coronavirus-related restrictions.  

Anecdotally, some colleges saw emissions reductions during the pandemic as commuting and air travel decreased, Dautremont said. Electricity use dropped some, too. 

Colleges didn’t see major reductions in heating and cooling emissions, he said, because many buildings still had enough people using them that they needed to be climate-controlled. 

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