Colorado College declares itself first school in Rocky Mountain region to reach carbon neutrality


Colorado College is the first higher-ed institution in the Rocky Mountain region and one of only a handful in the nation to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020, the school announced Wednesday.

The feat means the Colorado Springs college reached zero net emissions of greenhouse gases after more than a decade of work toward the goal. But the private college hasn’t eliminated all emissions. It still has fleet vehicles, wastewater and college-related air travel, for example.

Emissions — down 75% from 2008 at the school — reach carbon neutrality when factoring in on-campus reductions and off-campus investments in projects that reduce or eliminate greenhouse gases elsewhere, said Ian Johnson, Colorado College’s sustainability director.

“This is a huge deal,” Johnson saids. “A 75% reduction in emissions is a massive, massive number… We’re in an area where electricity is responsible for a lot of carbon emissions. I think things are changing fairly rapidly, and I think CC is a part of that.”

The push for Colorado College to hit carbon neutrality by 2020 began in 2007 when a group of  students heard about the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment — 12 university presidents who promised to lead on climate and sustainability action on their campuses.

David Amster-Olszewski, who founded SunShare Community Solar company, was among a group of 2009 Colorado College students who used his last weeks before graduation to rally about two-thirds of his peers for petition signatures campaigning for the college to commit to carbon neutrality.

The students rallied two-thirds of their peers to campaign to convince Colorado College to commit to carbon neutrality by a set date. In 2009, the school’s Board of Trustees and president signed on to commit to carbon neutrality by 2020.

“There was some resistance at the time from the leadership of the college who were concerned about the ability of the college to make that commitment,” Amster-Olszewski said. “It’s really something to think about the reasonable questions and concerns people had 10 years ago about the college committing to carbon neutrality and see this goal realized now. It says something about the value of taking a leap of faith and setting up a bold goal that nobody thinks you can hit and finding a way to hit it.”

To hit the goal, Colorado College implemented a number of initiatives:

  • 100% of the school’s electricity comes from solar energy produced on-campus or locally
  • The college’s Tutt Library became the nation’s largest academic net-zero energy library after an underground geothermal energy project and major renovations
  • Solar installations have been built on- and off-campus, originally initiated by Amster-Olszewski in 2008
  • Colorado College worked with Colorado Springs Utilities over the decade to find ways to partner sustainably

To account for the campus’s existing emissions, Colorado College invests in carbon offsets — meaning, the school put money toward projects that eliminate or reduce greenhouse gas emissions in other places. The college has invested in a methane destruction project at the Larimer County landfill, Johnson said.

Johnson wouldn’t disclose the amount Colorado College paid toward carbon offsets in the past, saying it was proprietary information. But for the next several years, the school is likely to spend about $20,000 a year on the landfill project, he said.

The college has saved more than $6 million from all of its sustainability projects, Johnson said.

“The economic case is there,” Johnson said. “We’re saving money.”

Colorado College worked with Second Nature, a nonprofit organization dedicated to climate action in the higher education sphere, to help reach the goal.

Tim Carter, Second Nature’s president, said 450 campuses are active participants in their climate leadership network with seven schools have achieved a carbon-neutrality target.

“Higher education is one of the key sectors in society that actually has a social mission,” Carter said. “They’re largely nonprofit, and they are, in some ways because of that, obligated to tackle some of the grand challenges that face society. Climate is one of the biggest challenges we face.”

Other colleges across Colorado have carbon-neutrality plans, including the University of Colorado Boulder, which pledge to reduce emissions 80% by 2050. Colorado State University also proposes carbon neutrality by 2050 with a 75% reduction in carbon by 2030.

What made Colorado College achieve its goal in a decade? Student activism, buy-in and hard work from the campus and partners, school officials said.

“This is not an easy thing to do,” Johnson said. “With the exception of a few other institutions, we’re kind of charting the course as we go. There is trial and error. It’s up against local politics and local bureaucracies. We had to work with our local municipal utility. It takes financial backing. Our Board of Trustees had to say this is something we’re going to put our money toward. Also, some institutions are a lot bigger than CC.”

For comparison, in the 2018-2019 school year, almost 2,300 students were enrolled at Colorado College, whereas a larger, public institution like CU Boulder enrolled more than 33,000. The Colorado College campus is just under 100 acres while CU Boulder’s main campus is more than 300 acres in size.

“The thing that really sets CC apart here is the way we’ve gone about this is more replicable and scaleable than any other institution that has done this,” Johnson said.

Cutler Hall at Colorado College in ...
Screenshot via Google Earth

Cutler Hall at Colorado College in Colorado Springs is pictured in this screenshot from Google Earth. The college announced it has achieved carbon neutrality by 2020.

Colorado College is not complacent in its achievement. The campus has formed a task force to determine how to align its academics with climate issues and figure out what the next steps are.

“Emissions still exist, and we still have opportunities to reduce those,” Johnson said.

Amster-Olszewski said his alma mater hitting the goal he helped set in motion gives him hope the rest of the state can follow suit on sustainability.

“A lot of people look at Gov. Polis’s goal of 100% renewable energy in 20 years — I hear the same resistance and pessimism that people have for this plan that I did when we were proposing carbon neutrality at CC back in 2009,” Amster-Olszewski said. “This shows it’s possible.”

Source: The Denver Post