Campus carbon neutrality?

Pomona College committed to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. This declaration was made alongside many other peer institutions, with some college’s goals set further than 2050, while a few have already reached carbon neutrality.

So, what does carbon neutrality mean, exactly? What steps do colleges take in order to reach net-zero emissions? Why do colleges choose to make a commitment to carbon neutrality? And what role can students play?

Carbon neutrality is a state of net-zero emissions, in which an entity seeks to balance its emissions through various methods of carbon offsetting (in addition to general carbon reductions). When a campus seeks to reach carbon neutrality, it takes a series of steps that may include: a full audit of its emission sources directly owned or used by the college like boilers and vehicles (called scope 1 and 2 emissions); an audit of some if not all of those whose emissions are generated off campus like purchased electricity (called scope 3 emissions); and an assessment of possible avenues for emissions reduction.

Often, the step that follows is an exploration of methods for carbon offsets such as building renewable energy facilities, purchasing carbon credits, or quantifying negative emissions from sources like trees on campus property. Ultimately, it’s a game of calculations that enable colleges to slap a label: “Carbon Neutral” onto their brochures. It’s a game of virtue signaling that gives colleges a competitive edge in attracting prospective students by saying: “Hey, our goals align with your goals.”

That’s not to say that the intentions behind carbon neutrality commitments are not pure, or good. There are certainly administrators who support this goal who are truly committed to sustainability. The climate crisis is real. However, when a fundamental aspect of environmental or social goals set by any college are for the sake of optics (or at least, perceived to be by many student activists), the steps taken to reach carbon neutrality end up being… less than optimal.

To start, every college creates their own definition for carbon neutrality. Some emissions in Scope 3 may not be accounted for or even considered. Some calculations are not clear. There is no standardization in this process. Moreover, when seeking carbon offsets, it is up to the college to evaluate the quality of the offset, and the biggest question that often comes into play is cost — why spend $X amount more when you can only spend $X, and achieve the same goal? Finally, what role does divestment and endowment emissions play in this definition of carbon neutrality? There is no clear path — just a lot of gray.

However, for students interested in advancing the state of sustainability and environmental goals on campus like myself, optics, a competitive edge, and external pressure on the institution end up creating simple tools for your advocacy. The freedom of a college’s ability to self-define “sustainability” creates many avenues for students to challenge their schools, draw comparison with other campuses, and advocate for more concrete measures.

Use peer institutions to hold your institution accountable.

When advocating for a certain goal, conducting research on aligned initiatives, branches, or groups that exist on other campuses is essential. This gives you concrete examples to challenge your administrators to ask: “This university has implemented a new strategy under the pressure of student activist groups. This college has built a framework to better build a bridge between the student body and administration. What measures have you taken so far to address student concerns in these areas?” The legacy of other students is the most significant tool to find support, knowledge, and inspiration. The success of other colleges is the most significant tool to challenge, pressure, and effect change at your institution.

I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to be an RCC Fellow on its nationwide Campus Sustainability Team, as my research and efforts to hold my college accountable in developing better sustainability goals are supported by an inspiring cohort of students that I may reach out to (or support in return) at any point. My greatest breakthroughs have come from utilizing the legacy of other climate activists on other campuses when advocating for campus sustainability. Organizing and advocacy largely rely upon building a mutual network to find support in aligned initiatives and goals. I am excited for the year ahead working toward collaborating with the administration to build a carbon neutrality pathway for Pomona that is aligned with student values and goals. More importantly, I am excited to see and learn from the work of my cohort of RCC Fellows who are environmental leaders at their respective colleges and develop our environmental advocacy journeys together.

—Selene Li

RCC Fellow – Selene Li – Pomona College

RCC Fellow Selene Li is a sophomore at Pomona College pursuing Environmental Analysis. Their interest in the environment stems from having grown up by the ocean in Hong Kong and the mountains in Colorado. This cultivated an interest in community-driven conservation and stewardship for the environment. On campus, they are an environmental representative in the student senate and an organizer for divestment. They sit on Pomona’s Carbon Neutrality by 2030 Committee, the President’s Advisory Committee for Sustainability, and the Board of Trustees Facilities and Environment Committee.

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