February 04, 2023

COA first school to become carbon-neutral

BAR HARBOR – When he was inaugurated more than a year ago, he said they would do it.

On Tuesday, David Hales said that they did.

The president of College of the Atlantic said the school has reached its goal of becoming the first higher learning institution in the world to become carbon neutral in its daily operations.

The accomplishment represents a new realm of expectation and achievement among colleges and universities, Hales said, so there is no independent accrediting agency that can definitely proclaim COA is the first such school to completely offset the amount of carbon emissions it produces each year. But as a member of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment’s steering committee, Hales said, he has heard of no other institution that has achieved “net zero” status.

“As far as we know, [COA is] the first in the world to make the commitment, and as far as we know, the first to do it,” Hales said.

The goal of COA, and now of more than 400 other schools nationwide that have signed on to the ACUPCC document, has been to adjust its energy usage to the point that it does not add to the increasing production of greenhouse gases worldwide.

Unity College in Unity has signed onto the same document and recently announced it had achieved a 20 percent overall reduction in carbon emissions since 2001. The University of Maine System also has signed onto the document.

COA does produce carbon and other such gases, Hales said, but it has taken steps to reduce its carbon emissions and to offset what it does produce. The offset has been achieved by COA investing $25,000 in a project by The Climate Trust in Portland, Ore., aimed at reducing automotive emissions by streaming traffic flow in that city. The project is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 189,000 tons over five years.

“We measured everything we do on campus,” Hales said. “We tried to create the biggest bubble [of emissions impact] we could imagine.”

For example, the college determined how much carbon is emitted by vehicles that carry students and staff to campus each day, he said. COA also estimated emissions produced by the school’s air travel, such as when guest speakers or prospective students fly to visit the campus, as well as its daily energy use and how that energy is produced.

Using emission calculator models, such as one provided by Clean Air Cool Planet of Portsmouth, N.H., the school determined that since October 2006, when Hales announced COA’s net zero commitment at his inauguration, it has produced 2,500 tons of greenhouse gases.

But COA also has reduced its impact by 22 percent since October 2006, Hales said. It expects to generate only 2,000 tons in 2008 and, eventually, reduce its output to 1,800 tons, all of which will continue to be offset by other environmentally friendly measures.

Other steps COA has taken include paying for electricity generated by a low-impact hydroelectric generator in Maine, college officials indicated. It uses more energy-efficient lighting, encourages employees to observe flexible work plans that allow them to work from home, and promotes carpooling and biking as means of commuting to the school.

COA also is employing energy-saving technologies as it transforms its campus.

In new residential housing it is building, it is installing wood pellet boilers for heat and composting toilets, which Hales said will reduce the amount of energy used treating sewage at Bar Harbor’s municipal wastewater treatment plant.

Hales said the school decided it had to aggressively reduce its carbon emissions when it realized that not doing so would conflict with the college’s mission. COA offers only one undergraduate degree, in human ecology, and has staked much of its 38-year history on environmental advocacy and conservation. Maine’s bottle redemption law was written on the COA campus, according to Hales, and just this year the college was named the “greenest” higher learning institution in the world by Grist, an environmental news Web site and magazine.

COA’s 300 students did 80 percent of the work in gauging the school’s impact and in developing a plan to achieve net zero status, Hales said.

“There aren’t a lot of other places that are doing it,” Hales said of the college’s emissions reduction plan. “For us, it’s particularly important because it’s fundamental for the education of our students.”

Tony Cortese is president of Second Nature, an environmental advocacy firm that consults with colleges and universities and has advised them on the ACUPCC project. He said Tuesday that, when considering COA’s history and educational focus, it likely had a head start on many of the other schools that have signed on to the ACUPCC goal.

Being the first school to become carbon-neutral is notable, he said, but it is not as important as simply demonstrating that it is possible.

“This is a major step forward,” Cortese said. “Getting to climate neutrality is one of the hardest things our society has ever tried to do.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.



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