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campus carbon emissions


The big contributors to the ivory tower’s carbon footprint originate off campus

A new study found campus carbon hotspots not just in infrastructure but in people's behavior—such as travel to conferences, student commutes, and purchases of research materials.
July 19, 2022

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The largest share of one U.S. university’s carbon footprint is made up of goods and services that originate off campus, according to a new study. Emissions associated with things like travel to academic conferences, student commutes, and purchases of lab equipment and other items account for 60% of Cornell University’s emissions.

The findings highlight the potential role of campus procurement officers in decarbonizing higher education, says study team member Fengqi You, an energy systems engineer and sustainability researcher at Cornell.

Many universities have ambitious targets for cutting their greenhouse gas emissions or reaching carbon neutrality. Cornell University, a private university with just over 25,000 students in Ithaca, New York, aims to become carbon-neutral by 2035.

So far, most universities’ decarbonization efforts have focused on infrastructure like electricity generation, buildings, and transportation. There hasn’t been as much attention to behavioral change or promoting sustainable consumption practices.

Similarly, past studies of universities’ carbon footprints have mostly analyzed the carbon footprint of campus energy systems, with relatively little accounting of the impact of other university-related activities, goods, and services.

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In the new study, You and other Cornell University researchers undertook a more comprehensive analysis of the carbon footprint of their campus. They also wanted to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on that carbon footprint.

The researchers assembled a detailed inventory of greenhouse gas emissions from Cornell University. They categorized emissions into three types: direct carbon emissions associated with on-campus energy generation; direct emissions associated with energy purchased from the grid; and indirect emissions from a variety of sources including commuting, air travel, waste disposal, and purchases of equipment, furniture, food, electronics, laboratory supplies, and building materials.

Total campus emissions amounted to 463.5 thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019 and 404.7 thousand metric tons in 2020, the researchers report in the Journal of Cleaner Production. “COVID-19 has significantly affected the campus’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” says You.

When the pandemic hit in the early months of 2020, Cornell made the switch to remote work and learning. This resulted in an immediate drop in energy use on campus, and emissions associated with on-campus energy generation fell  in 2020 compared to 2019. However, with on-campus power plants running at reduced levels in the early months of the pandemic, the university purchased more energy from the grid, leading to an increase in emissions from this source in 2020 compared to the year before.

Indirect emissions from goods and services originating off-campus decreased by a whopping 46 thousand metric tons in 2020 compared to 2019, or 16.06%. “This category of emissions is the most affected by the pandemic because of the lifestyle changes during the COVID era,” You says.

Digging into the details, though, reveals that some types of these emissions increased while others decreased as a result of the pandemic. Emissions related to commuting, air travel, and wastewater treatment dropped precipitously in 2020. Meanwhile, emissions traced to construction materials, computer equipment, and materials needed for COVID testing increased.

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Across both years, indirect emissions from purchased goods and services represent a larger share of the campus carbon footprint (60.4%) than direct emissions from on-campus energy generation (37.8%) and energy purchased from the grid (1.7%) combined.

“A university like Cornell spends millions or billions of dollars annually on procurement. As a major customer for many vendors, the University (and other similar organizations) could use its purchasing power to influence the suppliers/vendors to be more climate-friendly across the supply chains. Examples might include requiring vendors/suppliers to consider renewable fuels or electric vehicles for transportation,” You says. “Green procurement, sustainable sourcing, and choosing climate pledge-friendly suppliers/products could significantly reduce the University’s GHG inventory and contribute to decarbonization.”

You and his team are now investigating how new infrastructure to support Cornell’s green energy transition (such as solar panels, batteries, and deep geothermal wells) would affect the campus emission inventory. They are also taking a comprehensive look at how to minimize all types of waste—including food, water, and garbage—on campus.

Source: Sun L. et al. “COVID-19 impact on an academic Institution’s greenhouse gas inventory: The case of Cornell University.” Journal of Cleaner Production 2022.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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