Swarthmore Approves Plan to Eliminate Carbon by 2035

On Feb. 27, the Swarthmore Board of Managers approved a $69 million “Energy Master Plan,” which includes the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2035. Entitled the ‘Road Map to Zero,’ Swarthmore’s energy plan includes finding ways to eliminate or offset all of the college’s carbon emissions by 2035. This goal includes implementing a variety of policies to switch Swarthmore’s operations to clean energy sources. 

“Swarthmore College is committed to achieving carbon neutrality no later than 2035, which requires us to eliminate or offset all of our greenhouse gas emissions in the next 14 years,” wrote Aurora Winslade, director of sustainability, in an email to The Phoenix. “The Board of Managers recently approved the Roadmap to Zero, a comprehensive energy plan that charts the path to decarbonizing our campus heating and cooling infrastructure, which will get us about two-thirds of the way towards our carbon neutrality goal by virtually eliminating our Scope 1 (direct on-site emissions) and Scope 2 (emissions from purchased electricity) emissions.”

Swarthmore must, however, offset another category of emissions to reach its goal, which  are classified as “Scope 3.”

“Scope 3 emissions are all of our indirect emissions from activities like off-campus study, faculty and staff commuting, travel to conferences, athletics, and other activities, which are much harder to eliminate,” wrote Winslade. “As a result, we will likely purchase carbon offsets to neutralize these emissions until fossil-fuel-free alternatives become widely available. This approach will go hand in hand with efforts to reduce these emissions through measures like encouraging carpooling, the adoption of electric vehicles, and teleconferencing. We see carbon offsetting as a tool that will come into play after we’ve reduced these emissions as much as possible.”

Buying carbon offsets has emerged as a way to offset actions such as travel. An individual or company calculates their carbon footprint and pays a project or company that cancels out the same number of carbon units. The money supports efforts that reduce greenhouse emissions, such as developing renewable energy, planting trees, or replacing household appliances with cleaner versions across the globe.

Carbon offset purchasing, however, is not without its critics. Many community members believe that even though the motivation behind purchasing carbon offsets is beneficial, carbon offset purchasing uses money to deflect the problem instead of meaningfully addressing one’s carbon emissions.

“I think that while the sentiment behind carbon offsets is good, carbon offsets are often used to justify delaying efforts for carbon neutrality,” said Alexa Specht ’22, who is an environmental studies minor. “So I think our priority should be on our efforts, such as waste reduction and not using fossil fuels that reduce our own carbon footprint (and hopefully are a model for other institutions). That being said, we may never be able to be totally carbon neutral, and a carbon offsets program could help.” 

Zach Lytle ’21, a former President’s Sustainability Research Fellow who focused on Food Production at Swarthmore, also has worries about carbon offsets purchasing.

“Carbon offset purchasing sidesteps the real problem. If you’re buying carbon offsets, you’re still creating emissions, and the whole premise of carbon offsets gets pretty sketchy about verifying that you’re actually offsetting carbon. And since we need to get net negative, we can’t reach the stage we need to reach with carbon offset purchases because if you’re buying carbon offsets to reach carbon zero, you will still be putting off emissions. Since we need to get to negative [as a planet] to avoid catastrophic and existential threats to the human race, it’s not a great idea,” he said.

Lytle, however, thinks that allocating money towards carbon offsets is better than nothing.

“It’s a situation of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good … So it’s definitely better than not allocating them, especially since we’re not going to be able to convince people to not fly,” he said.

There is a wide variety of carbon-reducing programs around the world. These diverse options have created widespread debate about how much and where to purchase carbon offsets. Winslade wrote that the Office of Sustainability wants to engage the campus community in creating a framework for deciding which carbon offsets to purchase.

“When purchasing carbon offsets, there are some baseline requirements that define a ‘good’ offset. For example, offsets should be additional, measurable, verifiable, and permanent, and account for unintended consequences elsewhere. Beyond these principles, it’s important to consider elements like project types, locations, co-benefits, and other tradeoffs to make sure we’re investing in projects that align with our campus values,” she wrote.

On March 15, the Office of Sustainability began hosting the first of a series of conversions for the campus community to establish guidelines for carbon purchasing.

“With the goal of centering students and campus stakeholders in these decisions, our Climate Action Manager, Elizabeth Drake, proposed a carbon offsets project for the President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship (PSRF) program. This approach created the opportunity for a student to lead this work and convene campus stakeholders around the best path forward for carbon offsets at the College,” wrote Winslade.

PSRF, a year-long program, gives fellows the tools and support to learn how to lead climate initiatives on campus and beyond. In the second semester of the program, many students lead their climate action programs around campus. Previous examples include reusable Sharples to-go containers and reusable utensils. 

“Most people in the PSRF program had been involved in environmental work for a while before they joined the program, so they have a lot of pre-existing knowledge and then they work very closely with a lot of staff members who are also very knowledgeable,” said Lytle. “I also feel like students are often more aware of the time pressure we are under, so I often find that … having student leadership … can push the conversation forward in a way that doesn’t happen when there’s no students in the room.”

Currently, Olivia Stoetzer ’23 has taken on the project of organizing the carbon offset buying criteria. She spent the Fall semester researching and understanding carbon offset policies in preparation to begin drafting Swarthmore’s.

“Last semester, I did some primary research and a set of benchmarking interviews with [nine] other peer institutions. I wanted to learn more about their processes, the stakeholders involved, and their strategies for campus and community engagement,” she wrote in an email to The Phoenix.

The Office of Sustainability also wants to create a policy that speaks to the needs of the Swarthmore community, for which they began to gather student input this semester.Winslade explained that Stoetzer led the first community discussion on March 15 with a mix of students, faculty, and staff. The Office of Sustainability hopes to continue that level of engagement. 

“It was great to see this level of engagement around this topic, and I’m excited for Olivia to keep gathering community input to inform her work. We have much more work to do, and I look forward to ongoing conversations,” wrote Winslade.

Students hope to make an impact and have the college focus on investing their money locally, particularly in programs that help Chester.

“The first priority for choosing projects to invest in should be to make sure that the sites we choose do not disrupt the local community, and I think it would be awesome if we could invest in projects in communities we already have a connection with such as in Chester,” said Specht. 

Stoetzer hopes to use the community conversation on March 15 to begin to draft a policy for how Swarthmore will purchase carbon offsets in the future.

“This semester I hope to produce [two] main deliverables: a criteria for the types of offsets the college buys and a guiding document for that process,” she wrote.  “This criteria, which I will be drafting shortly, will be informed by the discussion we had at the Carbon Offsets Community Conversation on March 15. There were staff, students, and faculty there who were very helpful in assessing three different offset projects, and then using that information to think of what values and criteria mean the most to them, and to Swarthmore.”

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