Colleges and universities are hardly the worst offenders when it comes to producing the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. But with about 17 million students, they are massive energy consumers–and some schools say they consider it a moral responsibility to be at the forefront of the green movement.
On June 12, a consortium of colleges formally launched an initiative committing them to a path toward "carbon neutrality"–that is, reducing demand for greenhouse gases, and taking steps to offset the harmful effects of energy production on their behalf.
"When one looks at the major movements for progressive society change in the United States since the end of World War II, virtually all of them drew much of their energy from colleges and universities," said David Shi, president of Furman University in South Carolina. "It’s very appropriate for all of us to step out front."
More than 280 chancellors and presidents already have signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, though they represent only about 15 percent of American college students.
While backers insist that many steps the signatories commit to–such as green building codes–will save money in the long run, many steps are expensive and contentious to implement.
For instance, rural and suburban campuses are hard-pressed to come up with alternative transportation options to reduce their carbon footprints. At Furman, 95 percent of students have cars, Shi said. The school might consider steps such as not allowing students to bring cars their freshmen year, but he acknowledged such a proposal would be controversial.
Cape Cod Community College, which serves an area with little public transportation and two islands, also will be hard-pressed to change transportation options, said Kathleen Schatzberg, the school’s president.
But the college’s setting on a narrow spit of land makes its commitment to reducing global warming all the more urgent, she said.
"All you have to do is look at a map to see why environmental protection is so important to our economy," she said.
The signatories also commit to such goals such as purchasing energy from renewable sources and using proxy votes from their endowment investments to support climate sustainability.
Colleges are asked to commit to a target date for becoming carbon neutral, but because of varying starting points and circumstances, that would vary from school to school.
Bob Perkowitz, of the group ecoAmerica and one of the organizers of the initiative, said Middlebury College in Vermont, which has targeted 2016 for carbon neutrality, is probably as far along as any campus. Others campuses are aiming to be carbon neutral in 20 to 30 years, while still others are still studying their carbon footprints and deciding on reasonable targets.
American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment