Higher education institutions engage in many different types of emission reduction activities to achieve campus carbon neutrality. Recently, many schools have become interested in purchasing carbon offsets to counteract their unavoidable travel-related Scope 3 emissions.
I looked at the data that Signatories, higher ed institutions that have signed commitments to climate action, reported to Second Nature between 2000 and 2018. Based on the data of 481 colleges and universities, I found that 65 schools purchased carbon offsets. The cumulative amount purchased by these schools was 374, 372 tonnes over the 8-year time period. Some schools have a track record of buying carbon offsets in multiple years. For example, 32 schools purchased a total of 292, 829 carbon offsets across different years, although not consistently. On the other hand, 33 schools purchased carbon offsets in only one year. Some of these school started to invest in carbon offsets recently and therefore purchased only once, in the last reporting year. However, they may be likely to purchase again if they plan to become carbon neutral in the near future.
As most schools purchase carbon offsets at sporadic times, it is hard to establish a steady growth rate trend. As shown in Graph A, starting in 2013, the amount of carbon offsets schools purchased drastically increased. 2016 was the year the largest total amount of offsets, 89,886 tonnes, were purchased, however it’s possible that not all schools have reported on their 2017 data yet.
The 65 schools that have reported offset purchases are aiming to become carbon neutral by between 2015 to 2099. As shown in Graph B, half of these schools set the year 2050 as their carbon neutrality date. The earlier carbon neutrality date is important because these schools are more likely to make determined efforts to mitigate their environmental impacts by investing in carbon offsets.
What types of offset projects do schools invest in?
The schools buy offsets from third-party sellers such as environmental non-profits or carbon offset providers. Based on their data, most projects the schools are investing in are related to energy efficiency at a domestic level such as renewable energy, conversion of a landfill to methane, LEED buildings, electric transportation, etc. But there are some international projects the schools would invest in, for instance reforestation in Chile or clean cookstoves in Kenya.
What does this mean for campuses?
Carbon offsets are a quick and effective solution for schools that are not able to reduce their on-campus carbon emissions directly. Particularly, for schools that have significant faculty and students traveling, carbon offsets will make environmental sense to reduce scope 3 emissions. The reporting data shows a positive trend that the overall annual carbon offset purchase by signatory schools is increasing. For schools that have never purchased offsets before or for schools that have difficulties developing their own campus emission reduction projects, this data might encourage them to adopt offsets as a part of their campus carbon neutrality goals.