Sustainability: Colgate’s Carbon Neutrality Is Great, What’s the Next Step?

Colgate students often hear about how the University has achieved carbon neutrality. But what does that mean anyways? It is comforting to hear that Colgate is doing something positive for the environment even if you do not know the exact definition of it. However, it is important to understand what it means for our school to be carbon neutral. We need to first understand what carbon neutrality is, how Colgate achieved it and what steps Colgate is taking to make even more sustainable progress possible on campus, such as becoming carbon negative in the last two years. 

For an institute to be considered carbon neutral, its net carbon emissions must be zero. This means that the amount of carbon a source emitted must be equal to the amount of negative carbon emissions by the source. Removing carbon emissions from the environment entails owning a carbon sink. These can be in the form of forests, solar panels, wind farms or anything else that replaces a source of carbon emissions. In simpler terms, based on a metric created by the Environmental Protection Agency, the average person emits 8,887 grams of carbon dioxide per year by driving their car. For a person to make their car based carbon footprint neutral, they could plant 1,306 trees over the next 10 years. Those 1,306 trees would sequester 8,887 grams of carbon dioxide. That person could also avoid burning that same amount of fossil fuels by replacing 3,000 lights with LED light bulbs. A person can avoid burning fossil fuels through transitioning to renewable energy, like solar power and wind turbines, or working to increase energy efficiency by upgrading things like light fixtures. A person can also make efforts to sequester carbon emissions through plants as they actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Carbon neutrality does not mean that institutions are not emitting any carbon dioxide, it simply means that their net carbon emissions are zero.

Colgate began its efforts to prioritize environmental protection only in approximately the last decade. In 2011, Colgate established its Climate Action Plan which included the goal of making the campus carbon neutral by 2019. To achieve this goal, the University had to make important changes in its everyday functioning. Changes were made in recycling, composting, light fixtures, water and electricity consumption, the paper sources, and even creating “low mow” areas on campus regarding gardening. The school also implemented tray-less dining in Frank, and encouraged employees to commute by biking or carpooling.

Small changes such as switching to “low-flow” shower heads in residence halls reduced 90 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Changes such as these add up in reducing hundreds of metric tons of carbon dioxide. Colgate also invested in reworking the entire heating plant on campus to accommodate more carbon neutral biomass. Previously, it burned fuel oil which is one of the largest contributors to fossil fuel emissions. Lastly, from 2012-2019, Colgate invested in forest sequestration in Patagonia Sur, Argentina. This project offset 5,000 tons of carbon annually. This offset about one-half to one-third of Colgate’s carbon emissions during those years.

In the years since the original investment in the Patagonia offset project, there has been a shift towards engaging the campus community in the carbon offset decision-making process. In 2018 and 2019, the Sustainability Council hosted multiple community forums and distributed a campus survey to ensure all voices were heard in preparation for the university’s carbon neutrality. This entire project was vital for achieving carbon neutrality but it came at a cost. About $8 million dollars were spent on reworking Colgate to accommodate the carbon neutrality goal. However, it was projected that about $7.3 million of the budget was spent on upgrading the heating plant. This upfront cost was high, however, in the years since, these projects have paid for themselves because they have increased efficiency. In fact, our institution has saved money thanks to these projects. Colgate made the vital investment to achieve carbon neutrality and has set an example for colleges across the country to do the same. 

Colgate’s dedication to the environment has made an incredible impact. However, there is still more that can be done. In 2017, Colgate published its Bicentennial Plan for a Sustainable and Carbon Neutral Campus and the University is working to update this plan this year. The plan laid out ways that Colgate can continue to be carbon neutral through campus operations. There is also a strategy of increasing knowledge regarding climate change among the students on campus. This is likely to increase sustainable behaviors through individuals. Colgate’s Office of Sustainability currently offers programs such as Sustainability 101 to learn about adopting sustainable practices for PE credit. The Office of Sustainability also hosts events like 13 Days of Green and holds committees for encouraging sustainable behaviors for students. The work that the Office is doing is ensuring that Colgate sticks to its sustainable plan. To strive for greater carbon negativity would mean that students need to put in the work to be sustainable in their everyday lives. 

It is time for students to take control of striving for further sustainable achievements at Colgate through their behavior.