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Will Duke reach carbon neutrality by 2024? Depends on your definition

Duke planned to be entirely carbon neutral by 2024, but it may not achieve the goal in time through campus reductions alone. 

Twelve years ago, Duke signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, dedicating the University to carbon neutrality, or a net zero release of carbon emissions on campus, by 2024. In 2009, to meet this goal, Duke established a comprehensive set of sustainability recommendations called the Climate Action Plan.

But senior Margaret Overton, president of the Undergraduate Environmental Union, doesn’t believe the University is up for the task. 

“I think Duke has done a lot of good in the sustainability area, but I am very skeptical that they will be able to achieve this goal by 2024,” she said.

Overton explained that the failure of key projects, like the combined heat and power natural gas plant and biogas investments, have made it much harder to reach these goals by the deadline that Duke set for itself. 

Tavey Capps, sustainability director for Sustainable Duke, disagrees. Capps believes the University is still on track because they have “always said” the carbon neutrality goal would entail offsets.

“We’ve committed to carbon neutrality,” Capps said. “Anything that we don’t reduce through emissions reductions or other strategies, we would offset to get to zero. We were never going to be carbon neutral without offsets. The offsets take care of the remainder.” 

Carbon offsets are an investment in carbon emissions reductions somewhere off campus in order to compensate for the emissions on campus. 

When the University initially set the CAP in 2009, Duke envisioned a reduction of campus emissions by 45% and use carbon offsets for the remaining 55% by 2024, Capps added, with a goal of reducing emissions after this time as well.

As of 2018, the University has seen a 24% reduction in carbon emissions since 2007. Current projections show campus emissions will decrease to 78% of 2007 levels in the next four years. Capps is confident that the University will exceed its projections given 2019 revisions to the CAP.

However, Overton shed doubt on the long-term efficacy of relying on offsets.

“Offsets are a guaranteed part of any carbon neutrality plan for an institution this large, but even if they do help Duke achieve neutrality in the short run, it’s a bandaid that they can’t keep on forever if they don’t make big changes in other areas,” Overton wrote in an email.

The University’s goal for now is to become 78% carbon neutral by 2024, with the remaining percentage canceled out by Duke’s offset programs. But that number could change as investments rise and fall, legislation changes and campus needs shift. 

In order to jump to 78% by 2024, the revised CAP outlines five primary considerations: carbon offsets, energy, transportation, education and communication.

Capps mentioned three of Duke’s carbon offset programs—Loyd Ray Farms, Urban Forestry and Energy Efficiency Workshops—all of which are designed to split the difference between carbon neutrality and Duke’s remaining emissions. 

The future for emissions reductions is in energy, she said, specifically renewable energy investment, updates in on-campus building energy efficiency and investment in biogas.

“We’re still hopeful that we can do off-campus utility-scale solar,” Capps said, referring to North Carolina General Assembly’s House Bill 589.

The bill sets the potential to legalize a limited amount of third-party solar purchase for the University. Once the final provisions and restrictions as set in HB589 has been completed, according to Capps, Duke is prepared to move forward on solar, having partnered with unnamed developers in anticipation of future solar purchases.

In addition to solar offsets, hog waste biogas investment has been a hot topic at Duke for some time now. In 2018, the University decided to pursue hog waste natural gas energy sources after the permanent suspension of their combined heat and power plant. 

The original conversation around hog farm biogas was with Smithfield hog farms. Over the past few years, Duke had been coordinating with Smithfield to expand their capacity for hog waste as a future source of natural gas. In the end, Smithfield dropped out, raising the price of their natural gas too high for Duke investment. 

“Now, it’s more about looking at other options,” Capps said. 

She highlighted that Duke’s biogas strategy department has been looking into several different sites in North Carolina and working with farmers to build up their capacity.  

Capps doesn’t see the loss of this large biogas investment as having too much of an effect on current projections. 

“We weren’t including the biogas purchase until 2021 or 2022, knowing that it was going to take time for these things to get up and running and for the capacity to be there,” she said.  

Environmental justice groups—NC Environmental Justice Network, Rachel Carson Council and Waterkeeper Alliance—have argued against the use of methane natural gas sources given the negative environmental and aesthetic impacts of hog farms across the state.

However, the University believes that investing in biogas energy will help mitigate some of those negative effects and provide an abundant source of renewable energy given the over abundance of hog farms in North Carolina. 

The greatest challenge facing Duke, Capps said, is reducing emissions from transportation. This includes employee commuting and air travel, which she noted is quite difficult to influence.

“People’s reasons for living and commuting are very personal in a way that makes it difficult to control,” Capps said. “In addition, with staff and faculty members constantly traveling for research, conferences and other projects, it’s difficult for the university to limit air travel related emissions.”

After the failure of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Project, Triangle J Council of Governments and the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina have been working on regional transportation options, a conversation that Duke has attempted to participate in, Capps said. 

Duke has also been collaborating with Durham on public transit options. For instance, Sustainable Duke has encouraged the Duke community to attend city-held Listening and Learning sessions on busing and public transportation in an effort to seek sustainable transit options.

Capps noted that there isn’t one transportation alternative that’s going to work for everyone. To maximize reductions from commuting, the University is focusing on creating programs like ride sharing and biking incentives.

“People in this region commute so much across county lines and municipalities that you really need to have a regional plan that’s not just Chapel Hill or not just Raleigh,” she said. 

Entities like Sustainable Duke are working with students, faculty and staff to increase people’s understanding of the CAP and sustainable living on campus. Through the Green Devils program, dorm room certification and collaboration with preexisting student groups, Sustainable Duke has been working to decrease human indifference around the role they play in Duke’s carbon footprint.

Although 78% carbon neutral by 2024 is the goal at this moment, that number could change as investments rise and fall, legislation change, and campus needs shift. No matter what, Capps said Duke will be carbon neutral by 2024 and the sustainable efforts will not end after that deadline passes. 

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