In 2011 Colgate University set the ambitious goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2019. Currently over 700 colleges have pledged to reach carbon neutrality as part of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment; however, reaching the 2019 deadline would make Colgate one of the first colleges to reach this goal. An extensive 27-project plan was developed to reduce emissions through changes addressing all elements of campus. The targets of these projects include decreasing fuel oil consumption, electricity, water and paper use, along with landfill and food waste. Carbon emissions on campus have already decreased over 20 percent from the 2009 baseline measurement. In addition to the environmental benefits of these preliminary efforts, nearly $500,000 has been saved from reduced operation costs.
One of the biggest emission reductions planned will result from the transition from burning fuel oil #6 to natural gas to supplement energy generated from the wood boiler. Currently natural gas is not available in the Village of Hamilton, although it is likely to be available in the near future. Natural gas is much cleaner than burning oil; however, there are many environmental impacts associated with some forms of natural gas extraction. Because natural gas drilling is currently prohibited in the state of New York, natural gas used for heating likely comes from Canada, the Gulf Coast and Pennsylvania. The primary method of natural gas extraction in Pennsylvania is hydrofracking, an extremely controversial practice responsible for the current moratorium on natural gas extraction in New York State. Hydrofracking of the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania has been associated with air and water pollution caused by toxic chemical leaks. While replacing fuel oil #6 with natural gas may help Colgate reach its carbon neutrality goal, this switch may be supporting environmental degradation in other areas.
Even when all 27 on-campus projects are completed, carbon emissions will only be decreased by 35 percent. In order to reach carbon neutrality the remaining emissions must be offset somehow. The primary method of offsetting carbon emissions, and the option chosen by Colgate, is through the financial support of reforestation programs. Colgate has partnered with Patagonia Sur to create the “Colgate Forest” in southern Chile where 10,000 native trees will be planted each year to sequester carbon for a cost of $50,000 to $100,000 per year. This method of carbon offset may technically help Colgate reach carbon neutrality, but it is not a perfect or permanent solution for addressing carbon emissions. Offsetting carbon emissions through sequestering carbon in the Southern Hemisphere does not seem like a very viable solution since the reforestation project is taking place so far from the source of emissions.
While globally this practice would create carbon neutrality, local effects of Colgate’s carbon emissions will still be prevalent near campus. By choosing such a distant location to reforest to offset emissions produced on campus, the benefits of reforesting will not be shared with the local environment. While the Patagonia Sur reforesting project is helpful for offsetting remaining emissions and reaching carbon neutrality after other measures have been taken, it is not a permanent solution and offsets should be decreased as improved technology and resources become available. Emission reduction efforts should be focused more on changes to infrastructure and operations on campus, and any offsets needed should be carefully considered to ensure the local area receives the benefits.
One major challenge for the Climate Action Plan is increasing student awareness and involvement in this push to reach carbon neutrality. While the Colgate administration seems to be making aggressive efforts to decrease the environmental impact of the school, the same mindset is often lost on the student body. This unfortunate disconnect shows a major flaw in the environmental education provided by Colgate. While the school may reach carbon neutrality by the 2019 goal, does it really mean much if the majority of students are still unaware of the major environmental issues the world is currently facing? Colgate’s push for carbon neutrality is ambitious and impressive, but will all these efforts really make a meaningful difference, or is the Climate Action Plan just another way for the school to set itself apart from others?