Colgate Shows Commitment to Sustainability In Various Approaches

Over the years, carbon offsets have become a topic of discussion for students across Colgate’s campus. Many are not aware of the on-campus projects we have completed to reduce Colgate’s carbon footprint, the off-campus offsets that the university has invested in, and the process that was taken to invest in those offsets. Being that Colgate is a carbon neutral school, it is important that the members of the Colgate community have a full grasp on this story.

Colgate didn’t start its official journey into sustainability until around 2008, when they signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. This was a way to get on board with a nationwide sustainability effort within college campuses. Essentially, Colgate was signing an agreement to become carbon neutral as fast as possible. Then in 2009, the first greenhouse gas inventory was taken at Colgate. The gross emissions of greenhouse gas was measured by looking at our facilities, landfill waste, transportation and other practices taken on campus. This gave the officers in charge of sustainability at Colgate an idea of where measures can be taken to lower our greenhouse gas emissions. Our first climate action plan was published in 2011 where Colgate presented the goal to become carbon neutral by 2019. To achieve this, Colgate had to be reworked in different ways.

The heating plant was upgraded to support more carbon neutral biomass and move away from fuel oil, light and water fixtures were changed to be more environmentally conservative, tray-less dining was introduced and even lawn mowing was reduced on campus. In addition to these measures, six buildings such as Benton Hall became Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified, meaning that they are recognized for their preeminent sustainable facilities. Behavior change programs were also implemented on all corners of campus. Lastly, we invested in carbon offsets which will be broken down later. All of these steps were made to achieve carbon neutrality, which was officially announced on Earth Day in 2019. It was an incredible achievement for our university, given that the nearly 17,000 tons of gross greenhouse gas emissions was cut down by 46%, to around 9,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions on-campus. Colgate has now cut down its emissions from the original figure by 62%, as of 2021. Years of hard work and planning went into this accomplishment that will forever be set in Colgate’s history.

A question that might be raised asks how we became carbon neutral if there were still about 6,000 gross tons of greenhouse gas emissions remaining. This is where carbon offsets come into play. While working to become carbon neutral, the Patagonia Sur offset project came into the picture. For an institution with a large endowment such as Colgate to care about climate change, it is important to be financially responsible for our carbon footprint as well. It is also important that we make strides towards trying to mitigate the social carbon cost. A social carbon cost is the estimated cost in economic damages due to climate change. This is why Colgate decided to invest in the Patagonia Sur carbon offset from 2012 to 2019. Initially, the project offset a few thousand tons of carbon to help achieve net zero emissions in 2019. However, 2019 was the last year that Colgate invested in the Patagonia offset. Since then we have continued  to cut down on our on campus greenhouse gas emissions offsets to maintain carbon neutrality. 

It would be ideal if our campus could have zero gross carbon emissions. However, that would completely change the lifestyle for everyone on Colgate’s campus as a whole. Critical parts of our institution such as employee transportation, air travel, food consumption, maintenance of our buildings and faculty research would have to be given up to achieve zero carbon emissions. Therefore, we use carbon offsets to help make up for our greenhouse gas emissions where it might not be applicable to cut them out of campus life just yet. 

It is also important to understand that if Colgate is going to invest in carbon offsets, these offsets should reflect community values. Multiple surveys and community forums were conducted in 2018 and 2019 that asked the faculty, staff, and students what co-benefits they might value in carbon offsets. The community selected that they cared about ecological and social co-benefits. In addition, it was indicated that people valued the location in which offsets were purchased whether that be globally or locally. 

With the results of the surveys in mind, Colgate now invests in two offsets in the United States and two globally. These offsets also highlight a few of the 17 sustainable goals that have been developed by the United Nations. Locally, we are invested in the Seneca Meadows Landfill Gas to Energy which works to convert greenhouse gases into energy used for electricity. This offset meets the goals of affordable and clean energy, industry, innovation, and infrastructure, responsible consumption and production, and climate action. This protected location is also home to 215 bird species which exemplifies the ecological co-benefit that our community valued. The Danjiang River Solar Cookers are another carbon offset that we have invested in in China. This project works to provide eco-friendly stove alternatives to 100,000 low income households in the Henan Province of China. Some of the sustainable goals that it achieves include no poverty, good health and well being, affordable and clean energy, responsible consumption and production and climate action. Two other carbon offsets that we have invested in are in South Dakota and Brazil. They also meet our co benefit requirements and many of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. 

It has been a long road for Colgate to meet its own sustainable goals but with a great deal of thought, passion, community outreach and commitment, these goals have been achieved.