Carbon neutrality in 2017: A Q&A with Second Nature

 (Sam Bradway/Planet Forward)

On Friday, December 8, Middlebury College joined the short list of schools that have achieved Carbon Neutrality. Through investments in biomass, solar, efficiency, and conservation, the college was able to declare that it had achieved Carbon Neutral status. Now that Middlebury has joined the ranks, what more can be done to showcase environmental leadership? How can other schools get involved and join the ranks of carbon neutral campuses? I Interviewed Ruby Woodside, a fellow at Second Nature, to get a better sense of what carbon neutrality will look like in the coming year, now that several major institutions have gone entirely Carbon Neutral. Second Nature is the creator of the 600-institution-strong Climate Leadership Network, a group of schools across the U.S. that have committed to take leadership in combating climate change. Below is our interview:

Q: Hello Ruby, thank you so much for answering these questions for Planet Forward! Firstly, does Middlebury’s declaration of its Carbon Neutrality change anything for other schools? Has the College ‘paved the way’ for other institutions?

A: Middlebury’s announcement certainly pressures other schools to reach their goals. Middlebury is now the largest college or university to achieve carbon neutrality, which is a pretty powerful statement. I think this especially pressures schools that are peers to Middlebury, for example smaller private colleges in the Northeast. Schools with similar situations and climates can look at Middlebury’s strategies as models for their own paths to carbon neutrality. That being said, I don’t think this is a major change for the majority of the network. Each school has different factors influencing its emissions and different challenges to overcome.

Q: How can schools like Middlebury, that have achieved Carbon Neutrality, continue to show climate leadership going forward?

A: Schools can always continue to improve their operations, reduce energy use, and implement more renewables. Maintaining carbon neutrality each year is a major task that will require an ongoing effort by Middlebury. Another way that schools like Middlebury can continue to show climate leadership is to reach out beyond campus boundaries to drive climate action in the local community and region. Many of the universities that we work with are now signatories of the [Second Nature] Climate Commitment, which means they are committed to improving climate resilience with their community. Schools can act as conveners for local and regional stakeholders, and work with community partners to assess climate vulnerability. We know that many regions in the U.S. are already feeling the impacts of climate change, and I think there is a lot of opportunity for schools to step up and provide leadership in terms of adaptation and resilience.

Q: What other schools are on the path of Carbon Neutrality?

A: All of the schools that have signed either the Carbon or Climate Commitment have a target carbon neutrality date and a commitment to achieve this.  Some are much closer to doing so than others. There are at least 30 schools that have set their carbon neutrality data as 2020 or before. You can look at our public reporting system to see the list of schools that have upcoming carbon neutrality dates.

Q: On January 20, 2017, the United States will inaugurate Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. His nominee to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has been called a “climate change denialist” by the New York Times. Do you believe that his nomination will change anything for institutions looking to become more ‘green'?

A: So far we’ve actually seen this to be a motivating factor for schools. Over 220 college and university presidents and chancellors just signed an open letter asking the incoming administration to remain in the Paris Agreement, support climate and energy research, and invest in a low carbon economy. Higher education sustainability professionals have been organizing themselves and discussing the best ways to ensure that faculty, staff, and students remain engaged and committed to supporting the causes we believe in. The currently proposed polices of the incoming administration are certainly discouraging, but I’m actually optimistic that this will be a call to action and drive more commitment to addressing climate change on a local and regional level.

Q: If alternative ‘green’ energy incentives are reduced, (i.e. removal of federal tax credits for renewable energy projects or the purchase of energy efficient products), can colleges and universities realistically still become carbon neutral?

A: Yes absolutely, although it may change some schools’ paths to neutrality. Regardless of federal incentives, renewable energy is becoming increasingly more cost effective and competitive with fossil fuels, especially large-scale wind and solar projects. And on the state level there are many states committed to policies that support clean energy and investment in renewables. I really do think that investing in clean energy is good business.

Q: What do you see as major developments in store for institutions looking to achieve Carbon Neutrality in 2017?

A: I think there is a lot of room for innovative finance and insurance mechanisms to drive large-scale investments in clean energy and energy efficiency. We’re already starting to see some of this. For example, we work with a few schools that are able to sell carbon credits and access revenue from the voluntary carbon market to finance further energy reduction projects on campus. I’ve also heard about companies that are willing to develop large-scale renewable energy projects because there are now firms that will carry a lot of the weather risk. I don’t know much about this type of partnership, but am excited to learn more! Schools are always in need of capital for the large-scale investments in clean energy and energy efficiency that can truly bring them to carbon neutrality. It is certainly a challenge, but I am excited there seem to be more creative financial mechanisms to explore.

Q: What institutional innovation in achieving Carbon Neutrality are you most excited about right now [i.e. what is the newest, coolest way to reduce carbon effectively]?

A: I wish there was a silver bullet! I’m actually pretty excited about the land use and forest carbon sequestration that Middlebury used to achieve net carbon neutrality. So many schools have large amounts of land that they are not fully considering in their GHG [Greenhouse Gas] emissions. I think there are still many questions to resolve, but there is a lot of opportunity for improved land management and reforestation to sequester carbon. This isn’t to say that schools don’t also need to reduce emissions and implement renewables. However, I do think that a holistic approach to carbon neutrality and sustainability includes land use and its exciting to see some schools beginning to tackle that. There are also exciting examples of partnerships that enable larger innovative projects. As I mentioned before, the cost of renewables are very competitive - institutions can form partnerships like GWU [George Washington University] and AU [American University] have done and source a significant amount of their energy from new renewables projects.

Q: Anything else you wanted to share about Carbon Neutrality in 2017?

A: Congrats to Middlebury [on achieving Carbon Neutrality]!

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