What is Colgate’s Carbon Footprint?

A carbon footprint is the sum of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by an institution, business, individual or product represented in its equivalent carbon dioxide amount. As carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas that is contributing most significantly to anthropogenic climate change, it is used as the standard unit of measurement for carbon footprints. Other greenhouse gases that contribute to a carbon footprint include methane, nitrous oxide and refrigerants such as HCFC-22 that help keep our buildings cool during the summer and our hockey rink covered with ice. When all of these greenhouse gas emissions are summed together, the result is one number that represents the total amount of greenhouse gasses being emitted expressed as carbon dioxide equivalents (eCO2).

So what is Colgate’s carbon footprint? Put simply the answer is 18,965 metric tons of eCO2 for the 2008-2009 fiscal year. This figure is reduced, however, when offsets, such as the 875 acres of forest land that Colgate preserves, are taken in to account. Colgate’s so-called “net carbon footprint” with all offsets considered is 17,893 metric tons of eCO2 or 6.81 metric tons per enrolled student. These figures come directly from the report I produced this summer while working with Colgate’s Sustainability Coordinator John Pumilio.

The 18,965 metric tons of eCO2 produced by Colgate last year came from a vast array of sources, including student and employee travel, electricity use, heating, paper use and even gaseous outbursts from cows living on Colgate-owned farm land.

Colgate differs from many other schools in that its heating and electricity are not actually its main sources of emissions; rather, air travel, which makes up a whopping 44% of Colgate’s total eCO2, is the biggest contributor to its total carbon footprint. Heating, on the other hand, is only responsible for a mere 21% of Colgate’s total emissions, and electricity just 10%. This is due to the fact that Colgate burns woodchips for heat and happens to be located in an area where 84% of the electricity coming from the grid is from hydroelectric sources at Niagara Falls. Hydroelectric power is relatively carbon-friendly and woodchip burning facilities such as the one on campus don’t actually add additional carbon to the carbon cycle. Instead, they merely re-release previously sequestered carbon back in to the atmosphere by burning trees that during their lifetime served as “carbon sinks” or utilities that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Having relatively low emissions from heating and electricity helps Colgate measure up quite favorably with some of its peer institutions. Neighboring Hamilton College calculates their per-enrollment footprint to be almost double that of Colgate’s, and Middlebury, Bucknell, Bowdoin and Colby also all have significantly higher carbon footprints than Colgate does.

While this seems like great news, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Not to belittle Colgate’s sustainability feats such as the woodchip plant, but Colgate is in a way lucky to have such a low footprint. By chance, the University happens to be located in a place that has low-emission electricity. If Colgate could be picked up and moved to a location where the electricity came predominantly from fossil fuels, then its total carbon footprint would tell a very different story. Put simply, there are still many other aspects of Colgate’s campus activities that should, and hopefully will become more sustainable in the near future.