As colleges around the country race to eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions, Waterville’s Colby College has made a major announcement.

Colby is the fourth college in the country to become 100 percent carbon-neutral, a term that means that its net impact on greenhouse gas emissions is zero.

Administrators at the University of Maine at Farmington said that as a public university, the school finds funding levels are a major obstacle to achieving carbon neutrality, but it is committed to the goal.

At Unity College, administrators said they also are working to be carbon-neutral, but that not enough attention is being paid to divesting college portfolios away from fossil-fuel industries.

At Colby, the goal, which was achieved two years ahead of a 2015 target, was the result of decades of actions, with one major boost coming with the recent installation of a biomass plant to heat campus buildings, according to Ruth Jacobs, Colby’s associate director of communications.

The plant, which uses sustainably harvested wood biomass instead of oil, went online in 2012.

“The two major ways has been our switch to renewable electricity and our switch to biomass for heating,” she said.

In 2008, Colby President William D. Adams signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which has been signed by 15 of Maine’s approximately 30 colleges.

The climate commitment is meant to “re-stablilize the earth’s climate, the defining challenge of the 21st century,” according to the group’s website.

Unity and the University of Maine System’s campuses also have signed the commitment, under which they agree to set and work toward goals including carbon neutrality.

“It’s something that’s really important to Colby and something that we’ve been working on for a very long time,” Jacobs said.

She said the college plans to continue to work on waste reduction, recycling, energy efficiency and public education, which will lead to a reduced need to purchase carbon offsets in the future.

Emissions still present

Colby set a goal of 2015 for carbon neutrality, while Unity College set a goal of 2025 and the University of Maine at Farmington set a goal of 2035.

While Colby has achieved carbon neutrality, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t emit any carbon dioxide at all. There are still some emissions that will be difficult to eliminate, many of them associated with transportation and travel, Jacobs said.

Instead, it buys some carbon offsets, which Jacobs said is essentially investing in activities that will work to reduce emissions elsewhere in the world.

“The money from those offsets will help to build and sustain a market for projects in New England that directly affect the impact of human activity on climate change,” Jacobs said.

The actual rate of emissions at Colby in 2013 is projected to be 3.87 metric tons of carbon dioxide for every full-time student. The number might sound like a lot, but it compares favorably to 2012, when the rate was 5.72 tons per student, and even more favorably to 2002, when the number was 15.6 tons per student.

It is also significantly less than a national average of about 9 tons per student.

At the University of Maine at Farmington, Andrew Barton, a biology professor who has been at the forefront of the campus’s green initiatives, said UMF already has made significant gains toward its long-term goal of carbon neutrality goal by 2035. The first big benchmark for the college is 2015, when it plans to have made a 20 percent reduction from 2007 levels.

The biggest challenge, he said, is money.

Despite a strong desire to achieve carbon neutrality sooner, he said, “at UMF, we must make progress on goals one step at a time, with frugality as a guiding factor.”

In 2007, emissions at the Farmington college were about 5.4 tons per student, a number that will be affected by the planned summer installation of a large geothermal pump, which will heat and cool three buildings on campus.

“All in all, we’re very much headed in the right direction, despite our financial challenges,” Barton said.

Jesse Pyles, Unity’s director of sustainability, said Unity has set a carbon-neutrality date of 2025, a goal he said will be completely achieved with the purchase of carbon offsets.

Unity’s current emission levels are already lower than those of either Farmington or Colby, with 2.9 metric tons per student.

“The silver lining, of course is that we’re already so low in our emissions impact that it’s not a huge jump for us to get to that place where we want to purchase offsets,” Pyles said.

Challenges at Unity include the decentralized heating system, which makes it difficult to reduce emissions dramatically with one large project.

“We’ve got 26 different heating systems for as many buildings,” he said.

One of the student residences, TerraHaus, has so much insulation and sun exposure that it is heated for only about $335 per year.

It will take a long time, he said, before each building on campus achieves similar success.

“We know that there’s no silver bullet,” he said.

Fossil-fuel divestment

Pyles said that Unity has taken a different kind of step that also is important.

One big component of the commitment, Pyles said, is public education and outreach.

“Part of this outreach is our divestment campaign,” he said.

Beginning in early 2008, the college began moving its invested funds away from fossil fuels and other industries that significantly contribute to greenhouse gases.

In November, Unity announced that it had shifted all of its investments away from such industries, and that it has seen no loss of revenue as a result.

“By divesting, we’re taking a solid values stance, that we do not want to invest or support or make money off of those industries whose business practices wreck the planet.”

Pyles said the carbon-neutrality measure doesn’t take the divestment issue into account.

“It’s not going to be in our greenhouse gas inventory,” he said, “but maybe it should be.”

Otherwise, Pyles said, the benefits of a college’s commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions can be overstated.

“All the good that you may be doing on your campus to decrease emissions can be undone by a fund manager’s trade and the investment markets,” he said.

Divestment hasn’t been a focus at Colby, Jacobs said, but the issue is on their radar.

“It has been brought up by a group of students and they are preparing to meet with members of our investment committee coming up later this month,” she said.

A discussion about divestment is also underway in Farmington, Barton said, where students also took the lead on the issue.

“There is a strong student-led effort for the University of Maine System to divest from fossil fuel companies,” he said.

Barton said administrative discussions about divestment are ongoing.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com