Allegheny receives award for being first PA college, 8th in US to reach carbon neutrality

After a period of 15 years and with a commitment spanning the terms of three different Allegheny presidents, Allegheny has achieved its goal of being carbon neutral in 2020 — the first college in Pennsylvania and the eighth in the United States to do so. 

Allegheny was one of 3,000 colleges to reach this goal and to attend the 2020 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit, sponsored by the company Second Nature, from Feb. 23 to 25 in Atlanta, Georgia. Allegheny was represented by Board of Trustees member Christine Scott Nelson, ’73; Linda Wetsell, Allegheny’s 20th President and the original signer of Allegheny’s carbon neutrality goal, Richard Cook, President Emeritus James Mullen, and current president Hilary Link. Professor and Chair of the Environmental Science and Sustainability Department Eric Pallant and Sustainability Coordinator Kelly Boulton were also in attendance. 

Pallant said Allegheny accepted an award at the conference for being the first college in Pennsylvania to achieve carbon neutrality, along with being the eighth in the US.

“Allegheny was featured for its long-standing commitment to energy efficiency and climate neutrality,” Pallant said. “It was featured because as of this year, we are effectively climate neutral. … It was not just a major feat of reaching climate neutrality but doing it across three different presidencies was worth talking about, and for other places to really learn from and celebrate.” 

There are thousands of colleges in the U.S., and Pallant said Allegheny becoming one of the first to reach carbon neutrality is a notable accomplishment. 

Link described the conference as a wonderful way to showcase Allegheny in terms of commitment to carbon neutrality and sustainability, and an opportunity for three different presidents to show how wonderful Allegheny is when it comes to the commitment.

“What was funny for me about the conference is that everyone I met said, it seems like this whole conference is about Allegheny,” Link said. “I was like, that’s great. —that’s what we want. Because you know, anywhere that we can promote the work that Allegheny is doing not just on campus but globally, for the world, then that’s a good moment for us.”

Allegheny was also one of the least wealthy colleges in terms of endowment funds at this conference to reach their climate neutrality goal, which made becoming the eighth in the country to do so an even larger accomplishment, according to Pallant.

“Allegheny continues to be, and has been for a couple of decades, a leader in the state and the country on walking the walk,” Pallant said. “We don’t just preach sustainability, we actually do it. … It’s not like we purchased our way to this, we did it by commitment, and really working hard at it for 15 years. And (Boulton) gets a lot of the credit for figuring out how to do it.” 

Link said Allegheny got to this point not because of money but because of creativity. 

“We are able to be a model then for less wealthy colleges and universities in the country to say that you don’t have to be … some of these schools that have close to $1 billion of endowment, because we basically have $240 million on a good day,” Link said. “And yet we figured out how to make it a priority, … we’re like ‘The Little Engine That Could.’” 

Pallant said that being eighth in the country in this commitment puts Allegheny in a very rare position of being a national leader on climate issues, and that it is due to commitment on many levels across the college.

According to Link, when she officially began her term at the beginning of the academic year, Boulton was excited for Link to be able to continue the work that has lasted for 15 years, whereas many colleges across the U.S. have not continued their commitment due to the lack of action, resources or priorities of the institutions. 

“For me it seems so strange that a college would make that decision,” Link said. “It is a special thing about Allegheny that we would not even question continuing that commitment. … And I think the challenge for me, having come very late into this process and a lot of the hard work had already been done by the time that I arrived. But what (Boulton) and I are really focusing on now is, what’s next?”

Both Pallant and Link agreed that most of the credit for the achievement is due to the work of Boulton.

“(Boulton) again gets the credit for consistency from the first day to the present day, and in addition the success of reaching this point turned out to be because there was commitment at every level of the institution,” Pallant said. 

Link referred to Boulton as “a one-woman operation,” adding that “(Allegheny) would not have reached this point if it wasn’t for her.” 

Boulton described a lot of her work over the years as being focused on areas like reducing energy and sustainable construction, along with transitioning the college away from natural gas energies to renewable energies like solar panels and wind energy. She added that other projects included investing in grassland conservation and working on offsetting carbon dioxide emissions. 

Boulton also described how gratifying she thought it was to be able to be a part of this project for so long. 

“It’s been really gratifying to me to be able to watch the college develop over a span of time that is longer than a decade, and watch the college really embrace sustainability,” Boulton said. “With me being also an alum of Allegheny, I have had even more time to be able to see that Allegheny is not just saying but also demonstrating their commitment towards carbon neutrality. They are showing that this is something that can and should be done. I have also been able to work with dozens if not hundreds of students along the way with this project, so they are all a very important part of this story as well.”

Additionally, Boulton said that though reaching carbon neutrality and being the first in Pennsylvania to do so is a very big deal, it is also only one step in a larger journey. 

“Reaching carbon neutrality is just one point in our larger journey,” Boulton said. “There’s still a lot more work to do in order to fully integrate sustainability on campus, and there is more that we want to do. But we will look forward with a lot of motivation and positivity that we were able to make it this far.”

According to Pallant, students, faculty, staff, administrators and the Board of Trustees have all worked together to bring the college to this point, and that not many colleges are fortunate enough to have this kind of collaboration campus-wide on projects. 

“Of those 3,000 colleges (in the U. S.), I don’t think there are many that have that degree of bottom to top collaboration,” Pallant said.  

Additionally, Pallant explained how important this achievement is for the campus as a whole.

“(This is) about the college understanding the importance of having a campus that not just has an excellent Department of Environmental Science and Sustainability, but the whole campus is a teaching platform to make it clear to any student in any major that we are committed to reversing the causes of climate change,” Pallant said. “I couldn’t be prouder of anything else than to be part of an institution that has made a commitment and stuck to it, and the commitment is to actually save the world.”