Climate Zero

The Board of Trustees and President of Middlebury College Ron Liebowitz announced that the college will be going “carbon neutral” by 2016. Now this is a natural step for a school that prides itself on being environmentally sound. Middlebury is not the first higher ed institution to pull this manuever but it certainly becomes a prominent example for other high-profile schools.

What does going “carbon neutral” even mean?
Essentially, carbon neutrality is based around the fact that most activity (driving a car, operating a power plant, heating a house, etc.) emits carbon into the atmosphere thereby affecting the global climate (read: the infamous global warming!). To be carbon neutral is to be have no net emissions of carbon into the atmosphere. The question is how do we net zero carbon emissions? Don’t we all have to travel places and have heat in the winter? Well, the key is first reducing as much of the emissions as possible by using renewable sources of energy that do not emit carbon into the atmosphere and then further purchasing “offsets” to bring any remaining carbon contributions to zilch. Carbon offsets are, in its strictist form, buying rights to pollute (and emit) from power companies and not using those rights (see: cap and trade). But nowadays there are companies that specialize in doing offsets where a purchase of offsets goes to planting trees or encouraging renewable energy resources. Read the latest NYTimes article on: “Carbon Neutral is hip, but is it green?

What does it take for a university to become carbon neutral?
Most around Middlebury would point to the Sunday Night Group (SNG) as the driving force behind the carbon neutrality movement. SNG is a collection of students that care deeply for the environment and, in this case, researched and wrote up a plan for the college to go carbon neutral. So while SNG and students can claim a lot of credit for this one, it does come down to whether your school admin cares about these issues at all. College presidents join the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment ( when they go carbon neutral too — and some big names adorn the 224 schools on the list including all ten campuses of the University of California. You have to peer pressure colleges into it…

My thoughts are that while going carbon neutral is great. Middlebury College is not exactly the hugest carbon emitter. It’s more of a token support for the effort worldwide. I don’t think it’s necessary for colleges to go carbon neutral. I think it helps raise awareness, particularly among students but practically speaking, it’s simply worth reducing carbon emissions as far as possible. Buying the offsets is where it gets tricky. Offsets are purchased from usually for-profit companies. Overall, I think this is an excellent but not by no means surprising move by Middlebury College.