What does “carbon footprint” mean?

A carbon footprint measures the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere by a person, institution or nation. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases trap heat in the atmosphere, causing the climate to warm and change in other ways.

Dickinson’s carbon footprint is measured following guidelines established by Second Nature’s Carbon Commitment and the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. It includes emissions from most but not all college activities that emit greenhouse gases, including emissions from activities that are directly controlled by Dickinson and others that come from the activities of others who supply goods and services to the college.

Examples of emissions from activities directly controlled by the college, called Scope 1 emissions, include burning fossil fuels to heat the campus, burning gasoline and diesel fuel in college owned vehicles, refrigerants leaking from college equipment, applying nitrogen fertilizers and raising livestock at the Dickinson Farm. Dickinson’s footprint also includes greenhouse gases that are emitted by electric utilities to generate electricity purchased by the college, less reductions for purchases of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs; Scope 2 emissions).

Finally, emissions from selected other activities that are not directly contolled by the college are also included (Scope 3 emissions). Scope 3 activities that are included in Dickinson’s footprint are employee travel that is paid for by the college, employee commuting, student travel for study abroad, landfilling waste, treating wastewater, and purchasing paper. Examples of emissions that are not included in Dickinson’s footprint are emissions associated with our purchases of food, supplies other than paper, and capital equipment; students’ travel to and from campus; and construction.

What is carbon neutrality, and how did 2020 become the year to go carbon neutral?

A college is carbon neutral when the activities included in its carbon footprint add zero net emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. When net emissions are zero, the activities are not adding to human-caused climate change and have a neutral effect on the climate. This is achieved by a combination of actions that reduce the college’s emissions of greenhouse gases as well as actions that reduce the emissions of others. Reducing emissions of others counts as an offset to a college’s emissions.

Dickinson was one of the first 20 institutions to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2008, now called the Carbon Commitment. In signing the commitment, Dickinson pledged to adopt a climate action plan that would lead to carbon neutrality and to also integrate education about climate change and sustainability into our curriculum. Dickinson’s Climate Action Plan, adopted in 2009, set 2020 as our target date for carbon neutrality, making it one of the most aggressive plans in the nation. The date was chosen because it is an ambitious yet feasible time frame in which to achieve carbon neutrality. Reducing net emissions to zero in 2020 will make Dickinson one of the first carbon-neutral colleges in the nation.

Dickinson’s strategy for achieving carbon neutrality gives priority to reducing the college’s emissions.  To neutralize emissions that remain after aggressive emission reduction actions, Dickinson purchases carbon offsets. Gross emissions of greenhouse gases in the 2019-20 academic year are projected to be reduced to the equivalent of about 14,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, a 25% reduction from the 2007-08 level. This was achieved through conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy projects implemented over the past 10 years, as well as changes in the emissions per kWh of electricity generated in Dickinson’s market region.

Dickinson’s new solar field and purchases of RECs will cancel out all of the 7,000 metric tons of emissions associated with our electricity use, reducing the college’s net emissions to roughly 7,000 metric tons this year. Purchases of an additional 7,000 metric tons of carbon offsets in 2020 will reduce net emissions to zero and make Dickinson carbon neutral.

Looking beyond 2020, Dickinson will continue to reduce its direct and indirect emissions and become less reliant on carbon offsets as a means to be carbon neutral.

How does carbon neutrality help mitigate climate change?

By achieving carbon neutrality, Dickinson reduces the amount of climate-changing pollution emitted into the atmosphere. We are leveraging our emission reductions by joining with more than 400 other colleges and universities that are also pledged to be carbon neutral, challenging others in the private and public sectors to reduce their emissions, educating our students and community about climate change risks and solutions, advocating for sensible climate change policies, and helping to build consensus for strong and effective national and international action on climate change. Our efforts, combined with the efforts of others, will help to slow the pace and reduce the magnitude of climate change that the world will experience now and in coming decades.

Our campus efforts are important—reducing net emissions by approximately 19,000 metric tons annually. But they are most meaningful in their capacity to educate, inspire and motivate our students to become sustainability leaders who will combat climate change in their homes, their businesses and their local and extended communities.

Why is it important for Dickinson to reduce its carbon footprint?

Emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere, changing the Earth’s climate, harming people and the environment, and adding to growing risks of greater harm in the future. Current impacts and future risks fall disproportionately and unjustly on low-income and marginalized people in the U.S. and in other countries, people who contribute relatively little to the pollution that causes climate change. These are the documented and evidence-based conclusions of the Fourth National Climate Assessment of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and other peer-reviewed reports from highly credible scientific sources.

Dickinson has a responsibility to take steps to prevent its activities from harming other people, particularly vulnerable people and people with limited economic means. Dickinson also has a responsibility to demonstrate solutions to the world’s challenges that are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable and to serve as a model for its students, alumni, the greater Carlisle community and the nation. These responsibilities extend to limiting the harm we cause by contributing to climate change. They also extend to educating our students, ourselves and others about climate change and to working to promote and enact positive change.

By reducing our carbon footprint, challenging others to do the same, educating our students and community, and advocating for sensible policies, Dickinson is helping to build a consensus for strong and effective national and international action that can slow and limit climate change.

How has Dickinson reduced its carbon footprint over the years?

Dickinson has reduced its carbon footprint through four main strategies: 1. increasing energy efficiency of our campus infrastructure and equipment, 2. switching from high-carbon energy sources to low- and zero-carbon energy sources, 3. promoting behavior changes and 4. purchasing renewable energy certificates and other carbon offsets.

Educational parts of carbon neutrality

There are many examples of efficiency projects, but one recent  project that had a large impact is the LED Lighting Blitz. Dickinson replaced nearly all of the light fixtures on campus with LED bulbs, thereby reducing associated energy consumption for lighting by approximately 40%.

Our largest renewable energy project is a field of 12,456 solar panels that supplies one-quarter of Dickinson’s electricity using zero-carbon energy. Solar panels and biogas production at the Dickinson farm also provide the college with renewable energy while giving our students opportunities for hands-on research.

In the realm of promoting behavior changes is the Energy Challenge, which takes place on campus in the spring each year, whereby participants are encouraged to reduce energy use and carbon emissions by participating in a fun competition against other residence halls. 

And finally, we have been purchasing RECs associated with wind turbine projects in the Midwest for more than a decade now. Purchases of 18 to 19 million kWh of RECs each year have reduced net emissions from our electricity consumption to zero since 2010, and we started purchasing carbon offsets this year. 


What are carbon offsets?

Carbon offsets are earned by enabling or financing projects implemented by other institutions that reduce those institutions’ greenhouse gas emissions. Most commonly this is done through purchases of carbon offsets. The seller of a carbon offset receives financing for an emission-reduction project. The buyer receives a credit for the amount of carbon emissions reduced by the project that it can count against its emissions, lowering the buyer’s net emissions. Examples of projects include development or expansion of a solar or wind farm, an energy-efficiency retrofit, capture of landfill methane, and forestry projects that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

RECs are closely related to carbon offsets. Developers of new renewable electricity-generation facilities sell certificates, or RECs, for the renewable electricity that they produce. Buyers use the RECs to offset electricity they consume generated with nonrenewable sources of energy. This reduces the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to their electricity consumption. 

RECs and carbon offsets should be verified by a third party as meeting standards such as the Verified Carbon Standard or the Gold Standard. This is important because it is difficult for buyers of RECs and carbon offsets to know how much emissions are actually being reduced by a project, whether the reductions are truly additional to what would have occurred in the absence of the project, whether the reductions are pemananent, and whether the project might have secondary effects that cause emissions to rise elsewhere. 

Dickinson has been purchasing RECs since 2008 and began purchasing carbon offsets this year. All RECs and carbon offsets purchased by Dickinson are third-party certified.

From whom does Dickinson buy its carbon offsets, and what kinds of projects are supported by Dickinson’s offsets?

Our offset strategy is to purchase reasonably priced RECS and offsets that are third-party certified and that are as high quality as possible, given budget constraints. High-quality offsets produce real emission reductions that are additional, permanent and verifiable; limit leakage; are local; and produce environmental, human health, social, educational or other co-benefits in addition to reducing carbon emissions. 

Dickinson has been purchasing RECs since 2008. In FY20 we purchased 18 million kWh of Green-e Certified RECs from WGL Energy Services, which help finance wind energy projects in the Midwest. The RECs offset all of our electricity purchases and reduce our emissions from electricity to zero. We are also exploring opportunities to participate directly in a virtual power purchasing project that would yield financial and environmental benefits, including associated RECS. 

Dickinson purchased carbon offsets for the first time in FY20. 7,000 metric tons of carbon offsets were purchased from Schneider Electric to help finance a project that is reducing nitrous oxide emissions from the Terra Verdigiris fertilizer plant in Claremore, Oklahoma. The offsets are certified by the Climate Action Reserve.

Moving forward, we will seek opportunities for local offset projects that would benefit the greater Carlisle community and provide tangible educational connections. An example of this is our project to partner with the Carlisle School District to compost their food waste at the Dickinson farm. We are exploring other mutually beneficial projects with the Carlisle School District as well. 

Does the push for carbon neutrality cost or save the college money in the long run?

Fortunatlely, many strategies for reducing carbon emissions also result in financial savings. Essentially, there is a symbiotic relationship between environmental and financial sustainability. This is true even when not considering the social cost of carbon and climate change, which includes health costs associated with climate change and damages associated with the impact of climate disruption—to include damages from flooding, forest fires, rising sea levels, storms, food production impacts and more. But when thinking of return on investment more conventionally, all of our Climate Action Plan projects reduce both carbon emissions and energy or fuel costs and therefore have an associated payback. If the payback is shorter than the lifespan of the project, then there are savings in the long run. To put this in perspective, the college’s utility spend in FY18 was $2.1M, not including water and sewer costs. Our Climate Action Plan projects that reduce carbon emissions also reduce energy consumption, reduce that annual utility spend and reduce it annually for the lifespan of the associated project. In FY18, our projected savings from CAP projects was over $250,000. 

Most of the projects that we have completed thus far have an ROI of five years or fewer. Our LED Lighting Blitz, for example, has a payback of less than three years when considering the electricity savings associated with the project vs. the incremental cost of installing high-efficiency fixtures and LED bulbs. 

Solar panels have become more efficient and less costly over time, and large solar projects such as our solar field are good candidates for power purchasing agreements, which result in very low first costs and projected utility savings over the term of the PPA term. Perhaps most importantly, conservation projects or projects that target sustainabile behaviors to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions have immediate paybacks, since the cost of implementing the projects is either extremely low or cost neutral. And the results can be profound and meaningful both environmentally and finaically. For example, if the entire campus started behaving more sustainably, it is reasonable to think that energy consumption could be reduced by 1-3%, resulting in a cost savings of $25,000-$75,000 per year. 

How many colleges in the U.S. have achieved carbon neutrality?

Dickinson was one of the first 20 colleges to pledge to become carbon neutral when we signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2008. Since then, over 400 schools have signed the commitment. Six colleges reached carbon neutrality before this year, and eight other colleges pledged to be carbon neutral in 2020, including Dickinson. This year, Dickinson joins an elite group of national climate leaders in attaining carbon neutrality. 

What steps is Dickinson taking to reduce its carbon footprint even more going forward?

In the future we will need to tackle the large challenge of the on-campus combustion of natural gas, which accounts for 1/3rd of our footprint. We can strive to be more efficient with our heating systems, including our domestic hot water systems, but this ultimately will not eradicate enough emissions to achieve future targets. Consequently, we are exploring biofuels and carbon capture opportunities, particularly at our central energy plant. For example, we have been tracking one company’s efforts to introduce natural gas emissions into algae breeding tanks to neutralize the gas while feeding the algae (algae love carbon emissions!) and then harvesting the algae for health products and/or biofuel. 

We are also exploring opportunities to expand our bio-gas system at the farm in a way that would generate electricity from compost and cow manure—resulting in carbon-free renewable energy for the farm while generating carbon offsets associated with the compost and animal waste. 

Since more than approximately 1,000 meteric tons of carbon comes from our campus fleet and employee business travel in cars, we believe that moving toward electric vehicles will have a meaningful impact on our carbon emissions. We will be installing 6 EV charging plugs on campus this semester, which is a good first step in moving toward a future of EV.

We will continue to excelerate projects to super-insulate our buildings to reduce heating- and cooling-related energy consumption and associated carbon emissions. This year, we are installing spray foam insulation in the attics of multiple small houses and also insulating basement areas as an example of this strategy. 

We will also continue to install control systems in our buildings that allow us to strategically modify temperatures when weather conditions permit, or when buildings are vacant, to reduce unnecessary energy consumption and carbon emissions. We will also install more motion sensors in buildings to control lighting and other building systems when spaces are unoccupied.

We are also investigating opportunities for more roof-top solar arrays on campus, as well as additional efficiency and conservation projects and campaigns.