Colorado College Becomes Carbon Neutral

Colorado College Becomes Carbon Neutral

CC is the first in the Rocky Mountain Region to achieve this milestone—and it didn’t come without student activism and hard work. Now, other universities are following in suit.

Colorado College recently achieved their decade-long goal of becoming completely carbon neutral. This means the university has reached zero net emissions of greenhouse gases (this does not include outstanding emissions like vehicles, wastewater, and college-related air travel, the Denver Post noted).

The push for this large project began in 2007 when a group of students learned about the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment—a promise by 12 university presidents to lead on climate and sustainability action on their campuses.

Students sought signatures for petitions to gain student and campus support for action on the CC campus. The students ultimately rallied two-thirds of their peers to campaign to convince CC administration to commit to carbon neutrality by a set date. In 2009, the school’s Board of Trustees and president signed on to commit to carbon neutrality by 2020.

While the school has reached carbon neutrality, it will invest in carbon offsets, or other, relates sources of emissions. CC put money toward projects that eliminate or reduce greenhouse gas emissions in other places. The college has invested in a methane destruction project at the Larimer County landfill, said Ian Johnson, the CC sustainability director.

The college is saving money too—in fact, it has saved over $6 million from all of its sustainability projects, Johnson said.

Other universities across the state are taking similar action. For example, the University of Colorado Boulder pledged to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050. Colorado State University proposes carbon neutrality by 2050 with a 75 percent reduction in carbon by 2030.

The key to success, though, is not just money. Student activism, buy-in and hard work from the campus and partners helped CC reach its goal, said school officials.

“This is not an easy thing to do,” Johnson said. “With the exception of a few other institutions, we’re kind of charting the course as we go. There is trial and error. It’s up against local politics and local bureaucracies. We had to work with our local municipal utility. It takes financial backing. Our Board of Trustees had to say this is something we’re going to put our money toward. Also, some institutions are a lot bigger than CC.”

Read the rest of the Denver Post article on the topic here.

For information on the college’s sustainability changes and the tactics it implemented, read the below press release from Colorado College:

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Jan. 22, 2020 – Colorado College has achieved carbon neutrality, a goal it set in 2009 when it committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2020. After a decade of work, the ambitious target has been met — even as the college increased its building footprint by more than 10% during that time. CC is only the eighth institution in North America, and the first in the Rocky Mountain region, to achieve this goal.

“This achievement is a shared effort; the result of the hard work, commitment and resourcefulness of the entire Colorado College community,” said Colorado College President Jill Tiefenthaler. “We thank all those who helped make this happen: former President Dick Celeste, the Board of Trustees who voted to support his signing of the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, the students and young alumni who have worked on these initiatives, and CC’s faculty and staff, particularly those on the Sustainability Council, whose work and leadership has been invaluable.”

Colorado College stands out among other schools that have reached carbon neutrality in an important way. CC, a nationally selective liberal arts school at the base of Pikes Peak, has the greatest emission reductions on campus while buying fewer offsets than any other U.S campus. This means the milestone has been achieved primarily by steep reductions in the college’s carbon footprint on campus.

“We’ve done the difficult work of reducing our on-campus emissions first, rather than what some see as ‘buying our way’ to neutrality through offsets,” said CC Director of Sustainability Ian Johnson. Colorado College has done this in a replicable and scalable way, meaning nearly any other institution could apply the strategies used by CC to achieve its goal of carbon neutrality. Offset market development also is critical, notes Johnson, but only after working to reduce on-campus emissions as much as possible.

Another significant factor is that Colorado College is the only carbon-neutral institution located in a high carbon intensity electric grid with two functioning coal plants operating in the city. This is noteworthy, said Johnson, because “electricity use in our region generates more carbon emissions than most any other region, making major reductions in our footprint all the more difficult to achieve as our electricity use pushes up emission faster than other institutions.  It also means our renewable energy generation and use have bigger impacts on global emissions than in other regions.”
Colorado College embarked on its journey to carbon neutrality in 2009, when then-president Richard F. Celeste signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), now known as the Second Nature Carbon Commitment. Celeste chose not to sign in 2007, preferring first to have more information in hand, including the college’s carbon footprint and the efforts necessary for it to reach carbon neutrality, including reducing the college’s emissions of greenhouse gases, cutting energy use, using more renewable energy and emphasizing the importance of sustainable energy sources.

Since the college’s baseline year in 2008, CC has reduced on-campus emissions by 75%. Colorado College achieved neutrality through a variety of initiatives, including efficiency upgrades, building renovations, campus engagement, on-site renewable energy and local renewable energy purchases, reducing its carbon footprint even as its physical footprint expanded by 10% with the alliance with the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in 2017. Between the Fine Arts Center and the Bemis School of Art, CC added more than 142,000 square feet to its building footprint.

Because climate change is linked to and influenced by many different factors — from environmental racism to human health and income inequality, clean water, food production and access, and more — achieving carbon neutrality impacts far more than just the college’s operations, says Johnson. Many of the initiatives the college is undertaking, including adding more sustainability courses and finding new ways to make the college more accessible to students from diverse geographic, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, increase students’ literacy and understanding across majors and strengthen the institutions that build the resilient society that will be needed to adapt to impacts from climate change.

Some of the college’s major initiatives have included:

  • A behavioral change program involving 14 weeks, 14 habits and a 14% reduction in electricity, heat and water use. CC saved nearly $100,000 in utility costs through the “aCClimate14” effort.
  • Colorado College’s first high-performance energy design guidelines were written for new and renovated buildings. 
  • Tutt Library became the nation’s largest academic net-zero energy library following a massive underground geothermal energy project and major renovations.
  • East Campus Housing opened with sustainable architecture and energy systems.
  • Numerous solar PV installations were constructed on and off campus, originally initiated by a student in 2008.
  • CC has worked with Colorado Springs Utilities over the past decade to find ways to partner and meet its goals. This helped lead to the addition of the 255 megawatts of solar in current and planned projects for the utility.

To account for remaining emissions, which include difficult-to-avoid emissions such as college-related air travel, study abroad, commuting and wastewater, Colorado College is investing in carbon offsets — innovative projects that reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. Specifically, CC has invested in a methane destruction project at the Larimer Country landfill in Northern Colorado. This project prevents methane (CH4), a very potent greenhouse gas, from entering the atmosphere, and instead uses the CH4 to generate electricity directly to the Larimer County community.

The Larimer Country landfill project has co-benefits that go beyond reducing emissions; it has opened doors for future carbon related markets, reduced air pollution in the Front Range by adding renewable energy to the gird and supports the local community of Larimer Country. By looking at off-campus solutions for a portion of the emissions, Colorado College was an early adopter in creating and developing carbon markets and projects for the future, with the added bonus of meeting its aggressive 2020 goal.

“We have learned a lot in the past decade doing this work and look forward to sharing the knowledge we have gained with our Colorado community and institutions across the country,” said President Tiefenthaler.

Although CC has met its carbon neutrality goal, it does not mean the work is finished. President Tiefenthaler and the Board of Trustees have put together a Climate Change Task Force, led by Provost Alan Townsend to take on a “What’s Next” project looking at operations, leadership beyond CC, academics and the co-curricular, and the endowment.

“Addressing climate change will take strong, consistent work from institutions of every kind,” said Townsend. “CC has shown that significant progress in the climate impact of operations is possible in a relatively short period of time, and we are committed to showing that can be done in other sectors as well.”

Colorado College also is looking at options to not simply purchase carbon offsets, but to invest in developing new projects that are more socially and environmentally responsible, thereby benefiting its core academic mission, developing markets as part of the solution to climate change and providing positive social benefits for the community and region.

More information and a timeline of Colorado College’s progress are available at:

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