Allegheny’s journey to carbon neutrality: offsets

As last year came to an end, Allegheny College found itself completing its 13th year of dedicated work by students and faculty to become carbon neutral. To complete the goal, the college has turned to a new outlet: carbon offsets.

In 2007, Allegheny, along with hundreds of other colleges and universities according to Sustainability Coordinator Kelly Boulton, signed the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a plan to cut all climate changing emissions by 2020. Through various building projects and sustainability activities, emissions have been cut by almost half.

The national movement was overseen by a company called Second Nature, a group that seeks to address climate change by assisting higher education institutions in limiting their carbon emissions and teaching their students preventative measures to slow global warming.

Kelly Boulton has worked closely with Second Nature and members of the faculty to meet the set goals and make the campus carbon neutral by 2020.

“In 2009, we created a climate action plan, which laid out our carbon neutrality goal of 2020,” Boulton said “Before that and since then, we have been working on efficiency, waste minimization and other projects to reduce our carbon footprint. We do greenhouse gas inventories every year to quantify that footprint and track our progress.”

To complete the last leg of the emission-reducing race, the school has turned to carbon offsets, which are types of projects that seek to reduce carbon emissions which people or organizations can invest in.

“The idea with any climate action plan is you reduce your footprint as much as you can through efficiency and change in behavior, and then recognize that, as an educational institution in cold Northwestern Pennsylvania, we still are going to heat with natural gas at least for the foreseeable future,” Boulton said. “So the idea with carbon offsets is that you are investing in projects that are going to take or prevent an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, so you invest in projects that are basically balancing out your remaining impact.”

Cost is another large factor when determining whether a viable solution to cutting greenhouse gas emissions has been found. The average cost is between $5 to $20 per ton of carbon emissions offset, according to Offset Network, a company that works with Second Nature in coordinating offset projects, the most common being tree planting projects or the building of renewable resource farms. An average U.S. citizen produces around 20 tons of carbon emissions in a year, according to The Guardian.

Carbon offsets have been somewhat controversial in the past few years.  Due to how new they are, it is difficult to find sources for projects that are legitimate. The result sometimes turns out to be that a less-than-honest company claims to be investing in projects when, in reality, they just take the money and run, or use it to fund projects that end up increasing emissions in the atmosphere, according to Yale Climate Connections.

In one case, Hungarian company KlimaFa Ltd. took a payment and provided the official paperwork to offset Vatican City’s emissions. The company was supposed to plant trees, as described in the plan, but did not.

Many worries that arise from projects like these, though, are due to snap decisions to invest in a certain company or project, leading to misfortune.

“I believe in carbon offsets; there are good ones and not as good ones,” said Professor and Chair of Environmental Science and Sustainability Eric Pallant. “We are doing a lot of research to confirm that the offsets we are selecting are going to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in proportion to the amount of carbon dioxide we are generating because we have to heat our buildings with natural gas, and there’s no other way to do it because we can’t afford to heat our buildings any other way — at least in the short term.”

Boulton and her colleagues in the Department of Environmental Science have made clear that they are aware that investing in carbon offsets have the chance of backfiring in a situation like the Vatican’s, and are meticulously researching to prevent a similar situation from occurring.

“We are going to be able to look into all of the projects and determine what best suits us,” Boulton said. “We have a set of criteria that Second Nature sets forth that helps make sure that the projects are verified, certified by a third party that’s checking all the math they did, and permanent, so if you pay for a tree planting project, the trees won’t be cut down before they say it’s supposed to be. So we’re really looking at all the different details of the project; how it’s developed, who’s doing it, what are the safeguards to make sure that it’s performing the way it’s supposed to, and (Second Nature) has to send documentation each year on how the project performed. In addition, they only sell the amount of offsets the project has already created, not what the predictions look like.”

Jason Ferrante, ’20, president of Allegheny Student Government, reflected on the choices Allegheny has made to become more sustainable.

“Climate change, in my opinion, is the challenge of our century,” Ferrante said. “We’re desperately running out of time to fix this issue and it’s something that governments aren’t even set up to solve. I think that Allegheny’s 2020 target really shows that we’re committed to involve ourselves in that change, that we’re not going to be bystanders in this, and we’re going to try to make this change at least on a local level, and hopefully it inspires other colleges.”

Ferrante brought up better communication with the student body and the general public multiple times, each time touching on how the phrase “carbon neutrality” tends to be overgeneralized.

“When students hear carbon neutrality, they think our campus itself is going to be carbon neutral, that we don’t emit anything from our campus, and I think that we want to have some messaging to clear up some of those misconceptions,” Ferrante said. “The fact of the matter is, we’ve reduced our carbon by a lot by switching to EnPower, by doing LowFlow, by doing all these things — it’s really great, but we will never truly get to zero, partially because we have to heat our buildings and right now natural gas is super cheap, so I think what we want to do is work with some students in sustainability to re-message that we’re purchasing these offset projects.”

He explained how the school has been making decisions behind the scenes to ensure student well-being and improving sustainability at the same time. Many students raised concerns when they came back from winter break to find their residence hall lights permanently on. Ferrante reiterated that most of these concerns are already being taken care of by the college.

“Allegheny is technically powered by wind power, so that’s one great place where we can communicate with the students and say, ‘Yeah these lights are on, but they’re going to last for a really long time and they’re coming from wind power,’” Ferrante said.

Ferrante emphasized that students are capable of making a difference in the campus’s commitments, specifically by limiting waste.

“We really want to work on (the Green Box system) and really build into people a sustainability mindset and habits without holding their hands,” Ferrante said. “In order to start doing more, people need to think green, and composting is great, but our compost is currently at capacity so we want to start pulling away from that.”

He discussed ways he sees this shift occurring, the primary being through showing students how much of a positive impact the simple switch could have on the college’s carbon footprint.  Ferrante then revealed that there has been talks to provide a discount to green box users. He gave no timeframe on when this may be implemented.

“People tend to respond a lot better to a reward rather than a punishment, which is why we’re looking into a discount rather than a tax on other purchases,” Ferrante said.

Although the college has declared carbon neutrality, work still remains to be done to continue the promotion of sustainability across campus and beyond.