The new year will bring a new age of sustainability at Allegheny College, as the campus will be reaching climate neutrality in 2020.
The plan started in 2007 when then former Allegheny President Richard Cook signed a pact with other colleges and universities known as the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC, now under the organization Second Nature). This pact was a response to the growing climate crisis and lack of government leadership focused on combating the issue. In 2009, with the goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2020, the pact became the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, enacted by former President James Mullen and sustained by President Hilary Link.
The agreement requires Allegheny to complete annual greenhouse gas inventories to quantify the College’s carbon impact and have a climate neutrality goal, according to Kelly Boulton, sustainability coordinator. To reach that goal, Boulton and other students and faculty led efforts to reduce emissions produced by the college.
“We have an opportunity to not only teach our students about climate change and how to take action, but also model how to do those things in transportation, operation of buildings, even in dining services,” Boulton said. “College campuses are these perfect opportunities to demonstrate how to do that.”
According to Boulton, the College has been able to reduce its overall carbon footprint by 50%, by increasing energy efficiency and reducing waste. To combat the remaining emissions, Allegheny will be purchasing carbon offsets and will continue to reduce those emissions to the lowest levels possible.
These carbon offsets will absorb carbon dioxide produced by campus facilities that can be modified but not cut. This includes heating academic and residential buildings that are heated by natural gas, according to Eric Pallant, professor and chair of environmental science and sustainability.
“In other words, we are not really a carbon neutral campus (in so far) as we live in Northwestern Pennsylvania. … It’s 28 degrees outside and we are still dependent on natural gas to heat our buildings,” Pallant said. “So long as it’s cold enough that we have to heat our buildings, natural gas is the way that we’re going to do it.”
Building renovations were a component of one of three tangible actions Allegheny was asked to adopt when signing the commitment in 2007. This includes the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification for several buildings on campus.
North Village Phase One is currently LEED Silver, whereas North Village Phase Two is LEED certified Gold. Carr Hall, home to the environmental science and sustainability program, is also LEED certified. According to Boulton, the 454 House is not LEED certified because the college wished to invest money in more sustainability features across campus.
The newest addition to LEED certified campus buildings will be the oldest building on campus, Bentley Hall. Boulton pointed out how there was debate on whether or not Bentley should be certified.
“A really historic building and the LEED standards don’t match up totally well,” Boulton said. “We chose to do it because we feel that Bentley is symbolic of the college.”
The Bentley renovations are also to be completed in 2020, the same year Allegheny is set to achieve climate neutrality. The symbolism of Bentley, in addition to the timing of the renovations, make getting Bentley LEED certified all the more important, Boulton said.
The most effective method for reducing emissions, according to Boulton, is operational efficiency. Things like building insulation, boiler retrofits and lighting retrofits have made the most significant difference in emissions produced.
“To students, you don’t really see that or care that much, although it does make the spaces more comfortable, but that’s where we’ve seen a lot of the reductions in our carbon footprint (and) also reductions in our utility bills,” Boulton said. “We’ve drastically cut our utility bills since 2007 when we started this work, which is really great because it means that money can go to other things on campus that are more directly emission-related.”
Boulton said she tries to engage students on sustainability projects such as the October Energy Challenge, which has continuously cut back on energy usage and saved the college thousands of dollars in utility bills since the challenge started.
“All of the savings from that have funded the solar panels on campus, the water refill stations which intersect with asking students to use reusable water bottles,” Boulton said.
Although the energy challenge is currently just for the month of October, Boulton mentioned Allegheny Student Government’s interest in an energy challenge for the spring semester.
While some projects have proven effective, one factor has proven to be a challenge for effectiveness: student engagement. The green box and compost systems are an example of this, according to Boulton.
“The green box program is really interesting because it’s great on its own, it’s a way to reduce waste; compost is great, but a lot of the stuff we’re creating for compost in Mckinley’s (Food Court) is still single-use items,” Boulton said. “There’s still this embodied energy and resources that went into creating those things and shipping them to our campus and then we use them and throw them away.”
The compost system has become flooded with compostable products over time, which has halted compost production. To combat this, Boulton put the green box program in place. She noted that students and faculty will have to cut down on single-use compostables before the compost system can be up and running.
Boulton emphasized that the sustainability features and skills taught at Allegheny can be implemented anywhere.
“The thing that we hammer into our students here, but really everyone should be thinking about, is what are the little daily habits you can do — what are the things that you take with you all the time that can reduce your waste and allow you to have better habits?” Boulton said. “Carrying your water bottle with you all the time, even carrying a green box with you for if you go out to a restaurant that’s off campus, put your leftovers in there. I keep one in my car so that if I need one I can use that instead of creating waste.”
While Boulton noted that she is still working out kinks with the green box system, she emphasized that she cannot force students to use sustainable features on campus.
“We give every first-year student a reusable water bottle, we give every student the capability of using the green box program for free, we give everyone a spork,” Boulton said. “I can do all that, I can put the systems in place for students and faculty to reduce their waste, but I can’t make you do it; you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.”
Pallant echoed Boulton’s statements, believing the most effective way to be sustainable is efficiency and engagement.
“Regardless of where they live, the most important thing to do, and the most frequently overlooked, is to be efficient,” Pallant said. “Make sure that if you need to take a vehicle someplace that the vehicle is an efficient vehicle like a bus, train, bicycle or your feet, and if you need to go by car that your car is as efficient as possible, the most fuel efficient car and that you’re not the only one in it — those kinds of things which we don’t always think about.”
Both Pallant and Boulton praised the administration for their support of the climate commitment and for actively engaging with climate issues, and for continuing to pursue climate neutrality.
“It is imperative we commit and collaborate globally to find opportunities for creativity, transformation, and growth even as we face the turbulence of a rapidly changing climate. Allegheny College remains steadfastly committed to achieving carbon neutrality in 2020 and modeling to our students and community what it means to be an engaged, ambitious change agent in a diverse, interconnected world.” said President Hilary Link in a press release published by Second Nature in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s anticipated withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
Although there is still much to do, Boulton emphasized how important it is that Allegheny is on the brink of climate neutrality.
“2007 was only 13 years ago — we have done an awful lot in just over a decade and we have been more ambitious than most colleges and universities,” Boulton said. “2020 will put us at the leading edge of climate neutral institutions and yet we’re still really aware of like, ‘there’s more we can do,’ and I feel like the energy is ramping up, which is really great. So we should be proud.”