Duke on track to be carbon-neutral by 2024

The exterior design of the two C-1 hybrid buses that debuted last year serves to remind students, faculty and employees of Duke’s sustainability motto: bleed blue, but live green.

The implementation of the buses is one measure the University has taken toward its goal of carbon neutrality in 2024—a target University administrators say they are on track to meet. Such efforts, however, will also require innovative solutions to foster behavioral change on campus and achieve carbon neutrality in the coming years, said Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment.

“The encouraging part is how well we’ve done,” he said. “The sobering part is we’ve achieved easier things, like closing the steam plant. We’re going to have some big issues trying to address further cuts.”

Duke began outlining measures to reduce its carbon footprint in 2007 when President Richard Brodhead signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Since then, the University has decreased its emissions by 16 percent, according to a Facilities Management sustainability update released in November 2012. That number indicates progress in line with Duke’s goals—the University aimed for a 10 percent reduction by 2010 and a 21 percent reduction by 2015, according to the Climate Action Plan published October 2009 by the Campus Sustainability Committee, which is co-chaired by Chameides and Executive Vice President Tallman Trask.

The University has so far made “big central investments” that account in large part for its current success, Trask said. These measures include moving the campus steam plant off coal use, purchasing hybrid buses and investing in the Loyd Ray Farms Swine Waste-to-Energy Offsets Project, which captures and destroys methane gas to create carbon offsets.

The focus looking forward will be more on individual behavior and transportation, Trask noted, such as encouraging people to carpool, ride their bikes or utilize the free Bull City Connector bus.

“How to convince people to do those things is not clear,” he said. “We’re working with the city [but] the reality is, even though there are a million people around here they are pretty spread out, which complicates things.”

Tavey Capps, environmental sustainability director, said that although she is impressed with the commitment and engagement of the campus community around sustainability, trying to change peoples’ habits and behaviors can be challenging.

Individuals’ ability to reduce energy use and choose alternative transportation will be key in the coming years, she added. But some proposed sustainability measures, like eliminating freshmen parking on East Campus, have been received negatively by some members of the community.

“There are many factors that go into decisions around sustainability, and it’s often hard to please all the stakeholders involved,” Capps wrote in an email Saturday.

Although the Climate Action Plan emphasizes reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it also heavily utilizes carbon offsets in its plan to reach carbon neutrality. Offsets are reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases made to compensate for emissions the University creates, Chameides said. Examples include the University’s effort to prevent the release of methane gas into the atmosphere generated from hog waste or allowing the Duke Forest to continue to grow so that more carbon is stored in the forest.

The Climate Action Plan aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost 50 percent from the 2007 baseline, leaving almost 183 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent to be offset by the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative, according to the 2009 document. But achieving those offsets could be expensive, Chameides noted.

“If we’re willing to spend the money, we can find offsets,” Chameides said. “It’s simply a matter of whether the University is willing to pay for those offsets…. [Duke] is short on money right now.”

Another complicating factor of paying for offsets has to do with the difficulty of predicting their future expense—much of which will depend on federal regulation, Trask said.

“The markets for [carbon offsets] are young and undeveloped,” he noted. “There’s a potential that when we get to 2022 or 2023, depending on what finances look like and the cost of offsets, we may say we can’t afford it.”

Expenses aside, Capps said it is important that the University continue to prioritize environmental measures due to their far-reaching effects in today’s world.

Sustainability has been part of Duke’s mission since before the term was popularized, she said, noting that Duke has long been known as a “campus in the forest.”

“Learning how to think about complex issues through the lens of sustainability [and] considering the economic, social and environmental impacts will give students a key advantage in their lives beyond the walls of Duke,” Capps said.


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