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What does Carbon Neutrality Mean?

In general carbon neutrality means seeking alternative energy sources and energy use reductions to approach zero net carbon emissions. This involves better accounting and cost assessment of carbon impacts, better efficiency, and alternative energy sources. After pursuing those options, most institutions also purchase some carbon offsets to make up for hard-to-avoid costs such as JYA travel, which is part of our educational process. For examples of climate action plans at liberal arts colleges, see the end of this document.

Why does it matter?

Climate models and assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicate that climate change and ocean acidification will severely affect everyone and will disproportionately affect low-income populations and developing areas worldwide. At the current pace of warming, we should see dramatic positive feedback effects, such as melting permafrost, larger forest fires, and peat fires across Siberia and Canada, which will then release additional carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Agriculture as we know it will change, because corn and other common crops produce poorly at high temperatures, and water resources will decline for the large proportion of the world’s cities and farms that depend on mountain snowmelt and glaciers for water resources.

Action and innovation are needed at all scales, from individual action to global agreements, to reduce these effects.   

What would carbon neutrality involve?

The biggest portion of our carbon emissions is building heating and cooling, followed by electricity, followed by vehicle use, commuting, professional travel, and JYA. The travel factors that are most visible to most of us are important but amount to less than 10% of the problem.

Electricity is big and easiest to deal with: already we have agreements in place to provide 20% of or electricity with hydro (a small-scale run-of-the-river installation near Beacon, that is, not a dam) and solar photovoltaic energy (a solar farm on a landfill). We co-generate about 5% of our electricity with “waste” steam in the central heating plant on campus. We are working hard to cut electricity use by installing LED lighting, setting computers to default power saving modes (easily changed by users if they like) and other strategies.

Heating and cooling are extremely important and expensive remedy in aging buildings, so this is where the biggest challenges probably lie. Improved building envelopes, more efficient technology, and other strategies are options that the Sustainability Committee and other groups will be exploring.  

Reducing the climate impact of travel may involve better vehicle fleets, support for alternative transportation, ride-sharing, and so on, incentives for meeting remotely, and other strategies. Reducing the impact of food, waste, and other functions and services will involve diverse and creative strategies, including education and incentives for better practices.

Who is doing it?

Many colleges, universities, corporations, and cities have carbon neutrality plans, or climate action plans, in place. Most aim for neutrality in a decade or two. In most cases it is not yet clear how, or whether, goals will be achieved. Having the goals in place and publicly stated, however, has motivated tremendous reductions in energy use and carbon impacts. See examples at this link.

What will carbon neutrality cost us?

We don’t know. It may cost relatively little if efficiency improvements reduce operating costs. Building envelope renovation is extremely costly, but it will be happening anyway in the coming years as we work to keep Vassar’s buildings in good and usable condition. Estimating a range of cost estimates is one of the large and central challenges of planning carbon neutrality.  

What is a carbon charge?

A carbon charge (or carbon tax) is one of the strategies available to assign a cost to carbon emissions and to give a clear incentive to energy users to reduce energy consumption. In theory this is an efficient, minimally-regulatory approach. A carbon charge is a price assigned per ton of carbon emitted. When energy is used, emissions are calculated, and the user is charged. This can be a very sensitive signal for users to understand and adjust to their carbon emissions. It does require that budgets and decision-making power exist at the same administrative scale. Carbon charges have been successfully applied at hundreds of corporations and in scores of countries and provinces, from Sweden to British Columbia, Canada, with proceeds used to fund projects such as efficiency upgrades. In 2015-16 Yale University is implementing an internal carbon charge, and we and other institutions will be watching closely to see how their plan works out.

What about carbon offsets?

Carbon offsets, or purchased carbon credits, are a complex question with strong arguments both for and against them. An economic argument for offsets is that they can reduce carbon elsewhere more cheaply than we can do here, producing the most dramatic net reduction. (For example, suppose we could help fund a large solar installation in Pakistan for 1/10 the cost of doing a small one here.) Among counter-arguments are the points that the do not resolve issues of oversight, justice, and responsibility. Most institutions claiming carbon neutrality try to minimize offset purchases but do include some in the portfolio of strategies. Another alternative that has been proposed is “carbon onsets,” which means purchasing offsets but within the local community. (This is rather like a carbon charge, and we will be exploring both options.)  

How does it happen?

Different decision making processes and oversight, as well as better accounting methods, can incentivize practices that reduce carbon emissions. Training and communication for members of the community will be important. Improved technology is expensive, but changing accounting methods of accounting for costs and benefits, to better account for long-term and external costs, can make it easier to commit to technological improvements.

The American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education also provides a how-to guide on its web site to help institutions like us get started.

What do other carbon neutrality plans look like?

Here are a few examples of the many plans on which we might model our plan. There is a strong community of institutions sharing ideas on this project, and we expect to learn from peers as we proceed. This short list represents a few colleges of comparable size and with energy challenges similar to ours.  

Middlebury’s Climate Action Plan (written 2008, target 2016) (related web site)

Oberlin’s Plan to be Carbon Neutral (2009, target 2025) (related web site)

Carleton’s Climate Action Plan (2011, targets 2020-2030) (related web site)

Swarthmore Climate Action Plan (target 2035) (related web site)

Williams announcement (Sept 10, 2015) (related web site)

Union College Climate Action Plan (2010, target 2055) (related web site)