April 15, 2013

Colby College nation's fourth to reach carbon-neutral emissions

Unity College, University of Maine at Farmington also trying to reach zero net impact on greenhouse gas emissions

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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

click image to enlarge

The biomass plant at Colby College.

Staff file photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Members of Untiy College faculty and staff along with members of media stand outside the Terra House at Untiy College.

Staff file photo by Michael G. Seamans

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."

(Continued on page 2)

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