The Complicated Reality of Universities Achieving Carbon Neutrality

Boston University, like many other colleges and universities, has an ambitious goal: to be carbon neutral by 2040. In order for this to happen, BU will need to decrease its emissions until it no longer emits more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes out. For a university that serves over 36,000 students, employs over 10,000 people, and spans over 140 acres, this is a difficult endeavor. Is reaching carbon neutrality truly possible?

Achieving carbon neutrality is an ambitious goal that few universities and colleges have actually reached. To be carbon neutral, the amount of carbon that an institution emits cannot exceed the amount that is absorbed from the atmosphere. It is vital to decrease the amount of carbon in the atmosphere in order to limit the greenhouse gas effect, which traps the sun’s heat and leads to global warming and climate change.

As of 2021, only eleven universities and colleges in the United States had achieved carbon neutrality: American University, Colby College, Colorado College, Bowdoin College, Bates College, Dickinson University, Colgate University, Middlebury College, University of San Francisco, Allegheny College, and Green Mountain College. Thousands more, such as Boston University, are striving to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 at the latest.

To do so, three categories of emissions need to be addressed: scope 1, scope 2, and scope 3 emissions. These categories each come from different sources and therefore require different methods of emissions reduction. 

Scope 1 emissions come directly from the source, which includes onsite combustion and mobile sources. Often, these sources are controlled or owned by an organization. To reduce scope 1 emissions, solar panels could be installed and other energy-saving technologies could be implemented in order to reduce dependence on fossil fuel energy sources. 

Scope 2 emissions are indirect and may come from purchased electricity and steam. Despite the fact that the emissions are not being created directly on an institution’s property, they are still held responsible because greenhouse gasses (GHGs) are being emitted for their use. To reduce scope 2 emissions, institutions could install LED bulbs, which are more energy efficient and last longer than other light bulb types, such as incandescent bulbs. 

Scope 3 emissions, meanwhile, are seen as optional and often come from product transport, employee business travel, and employee commuting. Reducing scope 3 emissions can be a challenge because they are often the most difficult emissions to regulate and exercise control over. For this reason, institutions often purchase carbon offsets as a way to reduce scope 3 emissions without having to change their habits.

A carbon offset is a reduction or removal of carbon in order to compensate for emissions being produced. The money used to purchase offsets goes to projects to either decrease carbon emissions or increase carbon storage. Efforts to increase storage may include restoring land or planting trees. Carbon offsets such as these are often purchased to fund projects that reduce carbon emissions. Therefore, purchasing offsets allows institutions to claim that they are diminishing the impact of their emissions. However, while offsets fund projects to decrease carbon emissions, there are several arguments against their use.

One of the more notable arguments against purchasing offsets is that they do not reduce the amount of carbon the purchaser is emitting, thus the root cause of the emissions is not being addressed. Instead, the money goes to projects that are often unrelated to the institution, and the buyers are therefore able to get the credit for reducing the offsets of others. This also means that emissions at the source are not decreasing but are instead being mitigated.

Offsets can also be used for greenwashing, which occurs when a business or institution claims that they are environmentally friendly and have a positive environmental impact, even if they do not. Greenwashing most likely occurs when a business prioritizes the purchase of offsets instead of making structural changes in their supply chain. Many carbon offset schemes overestimate the amount of carbon they save, and thus allow companies to appear more sustainable to the public while taking the focus away from internal emissions reductions strategies. 

The effectiveness of offsets also depends on if the projects are used in addition to other methods and if they are followed through. Otherwise, carbon emissions may not be offset and the benefits of the projects would not be reaped. There are also not enough offset projects to cover the amount of emissions in the world, and not enough available land to meet many of the world’s carbon offset pledges. 

Achieving carbon neutrality is an ambitious goal, and would be very difficult to accomplish without purchasing offsets. In fact, out of the eleven universities that achieved carbon neutrality, none did so without offsets to close the gap between emitting GHGs and removing them. This raises the question of whether or not it is possible for an institution to reach carbon neutrality without purchasing offsets, and if it is truly fair for an institution to say that it has, even as it continues to emit carbon. 

For example, American University achieved carbon neutrality in 2018 – two years ahead of schedule – but relies heavily on offsets to address its scope 3 emissions. Efforts to decrease waste and offer more transportation methods to and from campus are the only non-offset methods the university uses to address these emissions. For example, to account for study abroad travel emissions, the university distributes energy efficient cookstoves in Kenya. The university also plants trees locally to account for emissions from commuting, uses efficient trucking technologies to account for university-related travel for athletics, conferences and meetings, and captures and uses emissions from campus waste, which would otherwise go to landfills. American University would not have been able to achieve carbon neutrality without these offsets.

Using American University as an example, universities may be unable to achieve carbon neutrality without purchasing offsets––an important consideration when determining if any college or university has truly achieved carbon neutrality. As Boston University strives to reach carbon neutrality by 2040, it remains a question whether it will do so without offsets or if it will join the list of universities that claim to have achieved carbon neutrality while still emitting carbon.  


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