Carbon Neutral, or Carbon-Lite?

By Claire Abbadi

As the College works to bring the Biomass Plant back up and running after it ran for 16 straight weeks — the longest, consecutive period to date — increased questions have been raised over the viability of carbon neutrality as the College races towards its 2016 goal.

In 2007, the College Board of Trustees approved a plan to become a carbon neutral institution by 2016. The College has since cut about 40 percent of its carbon emissions in six categories: heating and cooling, vehicles, electricity, travel, waste transportation and carbon offsets. This significant reduction in carbon emissions, which is expected to reach 50 percent by the end of the 2013 fiscal year, is largely attributed to the biomass plant, which burns woodchips to create a renewable energy source, an alternative to oil.

The initial plan for carbon neutrality was a student-led movement. Former Professor of Chemistry at the College Lori Del Negro and Professor of Economics John Isham led a winter term class in 2003 focusing on the scientific and institutional challenges of becoming carbon neutral. The class culminated in the production of a blueprint detailing how the College could reach this goal.

In January 2006, another group of students participated in the same course to make a more specific plan. They presented the plan to the Board of Trustees in February of that year. The board then made a commitment in May 2006 to use the student plan and pledged carbon neutrality by 2016.

“It was all [students] work,” President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz said. “They sold the trustees. It was not the administration. It came from students, and I think future innovations will come from students.”

The idea may have hatched by students, but it has quickly graduated to a booming administrative catch phrase primarily driven by the board and Old Chapel.

However, despite the College’s positive reduction of carbon emissions, neutrality seems to have become an increasingly complex goal, primarily because there are so many ways to define what exactly is included in carbon neutrality and whether true neutrality is even possible.

“I don’t think we can become truly carbon neutral according to the way that I would quantify it,” Professor of Geology Pete Ryan said. “There is the institutional way of quantifying carbon neutrality. And then there is the way I would quantify it. I think until we become basically a fossil free economy, true carbon neutrality is almost impossible.”

During fall 2009, Stafford Professor of Public Policy, Political Science and Environmental Studies Christopher Klyza taught an Environmental Studies class that looked at how the College was getting its biomass supply and if biomass was actually carbon neutral.

“The students were interested in this question, because it didn’t make sense that there is smoke coming out of the biomass plant,” he said. “It’s not obviously carbon neutral. So there must be more to it.”

“I think we’ve rethought biomass and how carbon neutral it is,” Isham said. “There were some critiques from faculty colleagues that proved to be true about overselling biomass as a carbon neutral process.”

According to Director of Sustainability Integration Jack Byrne, the reduction of carbon emission is defined within two boundaries: geographic and operational. The administration accounts for carbon emissions originating from the main campus, the Snow Bowl and the Bread Loaf School of English. Any place or product of which the College owns 50 percent or more counts toward its carbon footprint. For example, the College owns more than 50 percent of the recycling trucks that carry waste to and from campus, and therefore the emissions from those trucks are counted in the carbon emissions.

The accounting, nevertheless, can be tricky because many of the College’s daily activities emit carbon, which raises questions about what is included and excluded from the final tab. For example, the definition of travel is fluid as it only includes specific College-funded travel, while excluding travel funded through student activities or grants, according to the Climate Action Implementation Plan adopted in 2008. Even technology that moves us closer to neutrality is not carbon-free.

“Think about wind-turbines on campus and how they are made,” Ryan said. “They are made with tractors using dynamite to blow up rock to get metal out and the metal is finally refined into wind turbines that are driven here on trucks.”

The definition of carbon neutrality, however, is out of Old Chapel’s hands. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) officially defines what constitutes carbon neutrality and the official criteria for meeting this goal. Nevertheless, there still much variation in this definition.

Colby College recently declared carbon neutrality, but was only able to meet the IPCC’s criteria by buying a large number of carbon offsets. While some are willing to accept that carbon offsets are a reality in reaching neutrality, others argue that offsets are an imperfect solution.

“How do we feel about paying for other people to deal with our emissions? Because that’s what offsets are,” Ryan said.

Though Byrne could not say for sure, he predicted that the College would end up buying some offsets to reach its goal.

Regardless of the definition, the College has made tangible progress in carbon reduction. In the biomass plant, the College decreased its use of No. 6 Heating Oil  — a cheap but dirty fuel oil — from 2.1 million gallons annually to 634,000 gallons last year alone.

Likewise, it has engaged in a bio-methane contract — a low-carbon renewable alternative to fuel — which, if successful, would contribute significantly to carbon reduction.

Bio-methane, which is produced by burning methane emitted from cow manure, would be used as an alternative to burning oil and would reduce the amount of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas.

“The biomass plant has been instrumental in carbon reduction and the use of bio-methane would bring us 10 to 15 percent of our goal and would create jobs in the local community,” Byrne said.

When a local agricultural entrepreneur said he had the capital to create bio-methane, the College was eager to participate. However, the logistical issue of transporting the bio-methane to the College remains unresolved.

“The challenge is how do we get the bio-methane here,” Klyza said. “Which is where I think we’ve been drawn into this larger pipeline. The producer would have a facility about 3 miles from campus and a spur to the pipeline, which would replace our oil. We would then use no oil for heating the campus.”

Longtime divestment student-leader Greta Neubauer ’14.5 called the use of bio-methane “a step in a positive direction,” but remained skeptical about the big picture.

“My criticisms are based around what is not included in carbon neutrality,” Neubauer said. “I think it is pretty hypocritical of Middlebury to be building the biomass plant and other green buildings off of money from the fossil fuel industry.”

“I’m not as hung up on whether we are carbon neutral,” Klyza said. “We’ve made some great progress in reducing our carbon footprint. When I am thinking of the globe, we are not going to reach carbon neutrality, but what we want to do is reduce the amount of carbon we are putting in the atmosphere.”

“We are caught up in this accounting gig because we want to say we are carbon neutral. But in the end if we get to 95 percent, it’s still phenomenal.”

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Carbon Neutral, or Carbon-Lite?