US: Achieving climate neutrality

Can higher education in the US realise its commitment to sustainability and climate neutrality? Senior administrators at American universities and colleges believe it can - and even help inspire other sectors of society to do so as well.

Underpinning the premise that 'the restabilisation of the earth's climate is the defining challenge of the 21st century', the American College & University President's Climate Commitment hopes to guide higher education in taking a leading role in fighting climate change.

Founded in 2006 by 12 colleges and universities, led by Arizona State University, the organisation received charter status in 2009. In addition to leading scientific inquiry and offering strategies, it provides a framework for individual universities and colleges to implement comprehensive action plans to achieve climate neutrality.

Climate neutrality is defined as generating no net greenhouse gas emissions. It is something that nearly 700 American colleges and universities charter signatories have pledged to fulfil within a 50-year period.

Co-chair of the organisation and President of Furman University in South Carolina, Dr David Shi explains: "The timeframe, of course, is elastic, since each college or university has its own unique mix of challenges, opportunities and resources."

He adds: "It is likely that as yet unknown technologies in coming years may very well accelerate the timetables."

A range of climate sensitive measures such as tree planting, soil restoration and other means of carbon capture and sequestration in addition to reducing institutional and operational waste will be implemented to achieve this ambitious - but viable - goal.

Other initiatives supported by the organisation, including curricular changes that address issues of neutrality, are also being explored. It is hoped that current and future cohorts of graduates will be able to make increasingly meaningful contributions to solving current sustainability challenges and to contribute to the redesign of the basic mechanisms by which society meets its needs.

While the President's Climate Commitment model is intended to lead by example, legislation will almost certainly come to regulate change through controversial 'cap-and-trade' systems and carbon taxes as well.

Under the Waxman-Markey Bill (2009), institutions emitting more than 25,000 tonnes of CO2-equivalent would be subject to US Environmental Protection Act reporting and regulation. Should the Bill become law, the impact on higher education would be expensive, in terms of both carbon offset and higher utility costs.

In real terms, this could translate for colleges and universities that use coal-generated power into energy costs as high as US$7 million a year.

But many institutions have already begun to implement climate-sensitive changes. Furman University's climate action plan includes numerous solar energy installations across campus and a US$2.4 million US Department of Energy grant to convert all-electric heat pumps at a campus apartment complex to geothermal heat pumps.

In addition, the university's energy conservation and energy efficiency initiatives are expected to reduce energy consumption by 10%, according to Shi.

Responding to the greenhouse gas reduction measure Assembly Bill 32 in California, the 10-campus University of California (UC) system intends to reduce its output to 2000 levels within four years and expects to become carbon neutral as soon thereafter as possible.

Many campuses have implemented climate action plans and conducted voluntary emission tests. The state's Climate Action Registry has already recognised the UC San Diego as a leader for its measurement, independent certification and reporting of emissions.

Other initiatives have focused more on collaborative research and policy analysis for low-carbon solutions. Among the most high profile efforts has been the Low Carbon Energy University Alliance that includes Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tsinghua University in Beijing and Cambridge University.

Officially launched in 2009, the alliance intends to use as a springboard the universities' strong research records in global energy consumption and carbon emission technology to provide policy support in exploring options to promote a global transition to low-carbon alternatives.

Providing a model for other higher education institutions is only part of the equation; the other part is working with other sectors of society, explains Dr. Mary Spangler, Chancellor of Houston Community College and ACUPCC co-chair: "We can leverage our collective voice and help shape policy and galvanise action more effectively."

"Planning for climate neutrality at a time when it is difficult to imagine exactly what that will look like is not based on an idle hope that technologies and regulations will change, but an active participation in creating those changes," concurs Georges Dyer, a senior adviser at Second Nature, the primary supporting organisation of the organisation.