Fort Lewis College aims to be 100% carbon neutral by 2050 and is well on its way to hitting that goal, but it faces a tough road ahead.
The school reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 58% in 2018 compared with its baseline carbon levels in 2011. But cutting or finding offsets for the remaining emissions could be harder because the college must rely, in part, on other groups, such as commuters, taking action, said Kathy Hilimire, an assistant professor and sustainability coordinator.
Climate change is already happening, but its severity can be mitigated, she said.
“The magnitude of the effect is determined by the choices our society makes today. If every household and institution set a goal for carbon neutrality by 2050, like FLC has done, we could prevent the worst effects of climate change,” she said.
Climate change is expected to cause sea levels to rise, more extreme droughts in some regions and a greater risk of flooding from extreme storms, according to a report from the United Nations.
The poorest populations around the world are likely to suffer the most as the climate changes, making mitigation efforts a moral imperative for Marty Pool, coordinator of FLC’s Environmental Center, he said.
“No single person has the ability to change the world, so it takes a collective effort and every corner of the world,” he said.
At FLC, measuring greenhouse gas emissions means taking into account sources of greenhouse gases, such as electrical consumption, methane emissions from food waste, gas burned in commuters’ cars, energy used to heat and cool buildings, among other factors.
In 2011, the school produced the equivalent of about 23,000 metric tons of carbon, enough to power 5,000 cars for a year, according to Second Nature, a nonprofit that tracks emissions for schools. FLC dropped its carbon emissions to about 9,000 metric tons of carbon in 2018, or about enough carbon to power 1,956 cars for a year.
The school’s increased sustainability has largely been achieved by re-insulating buildings, using LED lights and installing efficient equipment, Hilimire said.
In May, the school installed a 74-kilowatt solar system on top of Sitter Family Hall, which was added to the school’s existing 60 kilowatts of solar power. All the solar installations at FLC produce about 2% of the school’s electricity, she said.
To further offset its emissions, the school purchases about 5.9 million kilowatt hours of renewable energy credits from La Plata Electric Association and American Wind, which represents about 58.4% of the electricity the school uses.
Renewable energy credits allow the school to support the development and use of renewable energy elsewhere to offset its own carbon footprint, she said.
To reach 100% carbon neutrality, major changes that FLC does not directly control would have to take place. LPEA would have to shift to renewable sources of power and commuters traveling to campus would have to find alternatives to gas-powered cars, Hilimire said.
Currently, about half of the employees and students commute to school by sustainable transportation, such as cycling, once a week, she said.
The school recently received an $18,000 grant from the Colorado Energy Office to help install four electric vehicle charging stations on campus, Hilimire said.
The charging stations are expected to be installed by March and are expected to provide free charging to anyone with a parking pass.
“We hope this drives demand for electric vehicles. We are also seeing an increase in e-bike commuting, a trend we think holds a lot of promise for carbon-free commuting up the hill to campus,” she said.
The school also must improve its composting to hit its carbon neutral goal.
The school’s composter processes about 50% to 75% of the waste from the dining hall that can be used on the school’s garden and orchard, Pool said. The composter is not large enough to take all the organic waste from the cafeteria.
The school is also working to reduce the amount of trash it sends to the landfill. In 2018, the school diverted 40 tons of waste via recycling.
About two-thirds of the waste on campus comes from the residence halls, so last semester students from the Environmental Center knocked on doors in the halls to educate residents one-on-one about recycling, Pool said.
If residents had cans of recycling to empty, the students with the Environmental Center would take it from them, which was meant to function as an incentive, he said.
This fall, an internal grant will provide funding for a student to continue educating students living in the residence halls about recycling, he said.
While educating students and changing their behavior can be difficult, Pool said it is some of the most important work for the Environmental Center.
“If hundreds of students walk away from FLC every year with a stronger commitment to take personal actions against climate change and support community leaders who are committed to shifting our communities’ infrastructure away from carbon-intensive and wasteful practices, then I’d say that’s our largest impact,” Pool said.