By Will Atwater
The University of North Carolina Greensboro welcomes 20,000 students and staff daily, a large number of people that can generate a sizable carbon footprint if measures aren’t taken to offset greenhouse gasses emitted through their activities.
Some students who live on the UNCG campus get around by walking, biking or using public transit. A portion of the university employees work from home too. Although they leave carbon footprints,they are not as significant as those of daily campus commuters who come and go in vehicles with combustion engines.
Sean McInnes, the UNCG campus sustainability specialist, estimates that there are nearly 13,000 daily commuters. Each commuter, UNCG estimates, is responsible for almost a ton of greenhouse gas emissions each year just by going to and from campus.
All told, UNCG estimates that in fiscal 2022, commuters were responsible for 11,840 tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere. The greenhouse effect makes it difficult for the earth to cool itself — leading to global warming and its resultant effects on weather events, sea levels, crop lands, forests and more.
One way UNCG plans to try to neutralize those automobile emissions is through the new Spartan DRIVE Fund (Drivers Reducing Individual Vehicles Emissions) project that targets commuters.
Blurbs about the DRIVE project say commuter emissions represent about 18 percent of UNCG’s entire carbon footprint. To help offset the effects of those emissions, the project urges UNCG commuters to contribute $15 each year to the DRIVE fund. They can account for previous years of driving, too, by putting the same amount into the fund for each year of commuting. The price tag for five years of commuting, for example, would be $75.
The money will be directed to energy-efficiency projects connected to campus, with a portion of it going to a local nonprofit that helps low-income area residents improve the energy efficiency of their homes.
Riding a trend
Colleges and universities across the country have been paying more attention to their carbon footprints as students worry about climate change and researchers hoping to play a role in sustainability make pledges to do their part to reduce greenhouse gases.
Scientists have cautioned that unchecked greenhouse gas emissions can have detrimental effects on human health, such as increased respiratory and cardiovascular illness from pollution. Global climate change could lead to more diseases transmitted by insects that survive warmer winters, as well as more heat-related deaths and other negative outcomes.
UNCG is one of a growing number of North Carolina-based campuses that have committed to becoming carbon neutral. Duke University, Davidson College and Guilford College are among the higher education institutions outside the UNC system that also have pledged to chip away at activities and habits that contribute to climate change.
It can be difficult to know how big a carbon footprint you are leaving, but the Nature Conservancy has a calculator that can add dimensions to what that might look like. Factors such as meat consumption, clothes-drying methods and modes of travel can have an impact. Fuel-hogging airplanes and indoor dryers make for bigger footprints than clotheslines and buses or train travel.
Because many day-to-day decisions can help people reduce their carbon footprint, UNCG is working to make information and lower-emissions options available in conjunction with the Spartan DRIVE Fund.
UNCG’s primary greenhouse gas emissions come from vehicles, electricity produced by Duke Energy and the use of gasoline, natural gas and propane. That’s one reason the campus is targeting the impact of daily commuters.
“We have a charge by the UNC system to become carbon neutral by 2050,” McInnes said. “One of the best ways that we’re able to meet that task is through energy efficiency projects on campus.”
The university system’s carbon-neutrality goal requires the development of a sustainable energy plan for each of the 17 campuses under its umbrella. Campuses have set interim mileposts as they work toward carbon neutrality over the next 27 years.
The schools have taken different approaches and made major investments along the way: N.C. State University has installed more than 130 kilowatts of photovoltaic panels on campus buildings. Appalachian State University has added a wind turbine and solar panels.
Thinking globally, contributing locally
Ten percent of the money generated from UNCG’s DRIVE Fund will be donated to Community Housing Solutions, a Greensboro-based nonprofit that provides home repairs to Guilford County homeowners at or below 80 percent of the poverty line. The funds will be used to better insulate homes, seal air spaces, repair heating ductwork and mend or replace inefficient heating systems. Those updates could lead to energy savings of $600 to $700 per year per household, according to the nonprofit’s estimates, in addition to making the homes healthier to live in.
“Community Housing Solutions is focused on providing critical home repairs to homeowners with limited incomes,” said Cheryl Brandberg, development director of Community Housing Solutions. “By making homes warmer, drier and safer, we can help preserve home ownership, reduce energy usage/costs and improve the overall quality of life for these Guilford County families in need.”
Spartan DRIVE Fund donors also will have the opportunity to volunteer each semester to help repair the homes, giving Spartans a chance to put the university’s motto of “service” into action.
“There is a spirit of collaboration and partnership in our work,” Brandberg said. “We rely on volunteers and supporters to help make these homes safe, decent, healthy and affordable places to live.”
The remaining 90 percent of funds generated by the DRIVE program will support campus energy efficiency projects, McInnes said. That might be something as simple as using more energy-efficient LED light bulbs, or it might be putting the money toward something more complicated and costly.
UNCG’s energy-efficiency efforts also focus on individual buildings, some of which are modern or on the drawing board as well as those built decades ago, before solar panels and other eco-friendly amenities were available.
So far, 20 campus buildings have the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) designation, said Sameer Kapileshwari, vice chancellor for facilities. (LEED is a globally recognized certification for sustainability achievement and leadership, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.)
In addition, McInnes said sometimes people forget about actions they can take at home to have an impact on climate change.
“I think a lot of attention gets put on innovation as far as solving the climate crisis, whether or not that’s, like, developing new forms of nuclear energy or doing carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere. But I don’t think enough credit goes to the maintainers,” McInnes added. “We have everything that we need to achieve carbon reductions, we just need the financial means to achieve that stuff.”
‘Take care of our house first’
McInnes said the university looked at various emissions offset models and decided to keep their efforts focused on campus or in the surrounding community to make a point.
“We want to take care of our house first,” McInnes said. “We don’t want to send money off campus and support [other] projects when we can have more control over the reductions we achieve, and they’ll be permanent.”
Some carbon offset programs require participants to purchase a carbon credit to compensate for the greenhouse gases they emit. That money supports carbon mitigation projects elsewhere in the world. For instance, an American company or institution can decide to offset its carbon emissions by funding an equivalently sized tree-planting project in the Amazon rainforest.
Kapileshwari says that organizations that focus on offsetting local emissions by contributing to projects far away and not at their own doorstep could be contributing to what’s often referred to as “greenwashing.”
“We are not trying to say that the university’s chancellor or the CFO is just gonna write a big check to some third party company, and then all of a sudden, all the utility we have been using is stamped as green energy,” McInnes said. “That is not the point. We are still using energy, and won’t it be better if we try to be more efficient in what we do and try to reduce the energy on campus and our impact on the environment?”
Energy efficiency = dollars saved
UNCG participates in the state’s Utility Savings Carry Forward program, enacted into law in 2009, which gives the university the leeway to reinvest costs saved through energy efficiency projects on campus. Since 2015, the campus facility department has saved more than $5.7 million in averted costs. In 2022, alone, that savings was $1.1 million. The law designates that a portion of the savings have to be put toward other energy conservation measures.
Though UNCG has a way to go to get to the 2050 carbon neutral goal, it has achieved a 14 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 2009, according to the news release.
More and more college students are asking institutions to take aggressive measures to tackle climate issues, a stance and mission that higher education officials say they cannot ignore.
“It’s no longer a matter of looking into the future. It’s a challenge that we’re facing now,” Michael Piehler, the UNC system’s chief sustainability officer, said during a 2021 interview. “As a great research institution, the university needs to be on the front line of being responsible, proactive and innovative, and coupling our climate activities with our conventional pillars of education, research and service.”
“We can’t all wait around for somebody else to take action,” McInnes added. “We’ve got to do it ourselves.”