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Progress Toward Climate Neutrality


Clarification about the College's Greenhouse-Gas Emissions Inventory: The College's greenhouse-gas emissions inventory does not comprehensively represent all of the College's activities that contribute to climate change. It is common practice when compiling this type of inventory to draw a boundary on the activities included and to restrict the inventory to those activities that generate carbon dioxide emissions on site or during the course of business. However, the manufacturing and distribution of every product and machine used on campus as well as the management of the resulting waste all result in greenhouse-gas emissions. Similarly, the systems used to treat and distribute the public water supply require large amounts of energy, resulting in emissions. Greenhouse-gas emissions are also produced during the production and distribution of the food eaten on campus. Carbon dioxide release is inherent in nearly every human activity. 

Swarthmore College’s first greenhouse-gas inventory, which tracks emissions from 2005–2008, was developed by the Center for Sustainable Communities at Temple University. The College’s greenhouse-gas inventory for 2010 (completed in house) updated and expanded the inventory developed by Temple and served as the baseline assessment for Swarthmore’s Climate Action Plan. Since the initial inventory, the College has compiled updates for 2011 and 2013. Figure 1 displays the College’s emissions profile for 2010, 2011, and 2013.

Figure 1: Swarthmore College Greenhouse-Gas Emissions Profile 2010, 2011 and 2013

Greenhouse-gas emissions




Scope 1 (MT eCO2)




Scope 2 (MT eCO2)




Scope 3 (MT eCO2)




Gross emissions (MT eCO2)




Offsets (MT eCO2)




Net emissions (MT eCO2)




Scope 1: Direct carbon dioxide emissions (eCO2) from campus heat-plant boilers, generators, chillers, vehicles, and refrigerants.

Scope 2: Indirect eCO2 attributed to purchased electricity.

Scope 3: Indirect eCO2 including employee air travel, employee commute, and study-abroad air travel.

(eCO2 = carbon dioxide equivalent; a metric measure used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases based upon their global warming potential.)

With only three points of comparison, it is difficult to draw conclusions from Figure 1. The main positive result is that the College is meeting its interim target of a 50 percent reduction in net emissions by 2015. This is being achieved through the purchase of RECs and, to a small degree, by the College’s composting program. The College has purchased RECs in the form of wind power since 1999. This commitment has gradually increased so that 100 percent of the College’s greenhouse-gas emissions generated from its electricity use are offset by RECs.

The College does not have consistent and complete emissions information before 2010, but it does have historic building heating and electricity use data. The College has been on a downward trend in its direct emissions and emissions from electricity use since 2005. After the renovations and new construction completed between 1990 and 2000, the College grew to 1,238,593 square feet. In the decade following, the campus continued to grow, adding approximately 250,000 square feet of academic, dormitory, and support space. Given this growth, the reduction of energy use since 2005 is impressive. 

The decline in the College’s greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to a reduction in the use of no. 6 fuel oil, which has greater carbon intensity than natural gas; to building retrofits and conservation measures; and to actively managing the College’s spaces through its Siemens building management system. As just one example of the College’s energy conservation measures, the second floor of McCabe Library was fitted with stack light switches that turn on lighting only when needed. From the start of classes in September 2013 to date, the McCabe conversion alone saved more than 150,000 kWh and eliminated 71 tons of carbon. All of the combined lighting improvements completed in College buildings since 2008 save approximately 492,407 kWh and 466,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually. 

Figure 2: Energy Use per Square Foot by Budget Year

Figure 2

The campus is continuing to grow in population and building square footage, which will, in turn, increase energy demand. In spite of steady progress in reducing the energy use per square foot, as shown in Figure 2, the College may be reaching a plateau in what it can achieve without major infrastructure changes. 

The College will likely see the impact of the construction of the Matchbox and the Dana/Hallowell in-fill projects in its next greenhouse-gas emission inventory update. However, weather patterns also confound the data; unusually hot summers or unusually cold winters, such as winter 2014, can impact energy use significantly, in maintaining comfortable temperatures in the campus buildings.

This past winter also demonstrated the fragility of the College’s infrastructure. Natural-gas deliveries were suspended several times to relieve supply demands on the pipeline system. The electric-grid operator also called for voluntary reductions in power use on the coldest days in January. When the main electric service to the College failed on Feb. 5, the inherent danger that an extended winter blackout imposes on a facility with a 24/7-student population was made clear. With climate change, it is likely that severe weather conditions are going to become a more frequent occurrence, and the College needs to ensure its resiliency and ability to adapt to this changing climate and subsequent weather events.

To continue to shrink the College’s carbon profile—or even maintain stability—will require significant investment in new technologies for building heating, cooling, and lighting. The initial cost of these improvements is frequently a point of contention, but the College must move beyond this as the primary factor in decision making, if it truly values its carbon-neutrality commitment. One method to assist with the cost of these projects would be to adopt a voluntary carbon tax (using best available estimates on the social cost of carbon) where the College taxes itself for the generation of carbon dioxide emissions. This tax revenue could then be allocated for carbon-reduction projects on campus. The carbon tax rate, which could vary by the carbon intensity of different fuel types, would also be factored into the cost estimates of the College’s capital projects.

Keeping in mind the impact of planned growth on carbon dioxide emissions, the College kicked off a Sustainability Framework project this summer. The purpose of this study is to create a sustainability building standard for the College’s new buildings and major renovation projects. The College has currently committed to building all new construction to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver standard or better. Two buildings have been LEED certified: the Science Center and the Wister Center. The Wister Center achieved LEED Gold status. Alice Paul and David Kemp residence halls meet LEED criteria, but the College did not pursue certification for those buildings.

In general, the College community has expressed dissatisfaction that the College has not fully committed to LEED as a building standard and only used LEED Silver as the construction benchmark, particularly with regard to energy consumption. Thus, a major component of the Sustainability Framework will be an in-depth energy study to set appropriate energy benchmarks for its current and future buildings as well as to recommend infrastructure improvements and renewable energy opportunities.

As more than 70 percent of the College’s gross emissions are from building energy use, this has been and should be the primary focus of the College’s carbon-reduction efforts. The remaining emissions relate to transportation, including fuel use by College-owned vehicles, employee air travel, employee commutes, and study-abroad air travel. Although many of these transportation activities are difficult to modify, the College is making strides to reduce vehicle use and the carbon contribution of vehicles used for College activities. Launching the car-sharing program, operated by Zipcar, is part of this effort as this program could entice members of the College community, who can feasibly get to campus by other means, to leave their cars at home. However, this program alone is unlikely to have a noticeable impact on the College’s transport emissions.

Creation of a van-pool/ride-share program, modifications to employee transit incentives and housing benefits, and disincentives like parking fees are other initiatives the College should consider; these strategies have been successful in other communities to reduce employee-commute emissions. Nonetheless, the majority of transportation emissions will need to be offset to achieve carbon neutrality as employee flights and student study-abroad air travel are vital parts of the College’s operations.

The College also needs to consider establishing fleet standards and policies to ensure vehicles purchased are as fuel efficient as possible, while meeting the College’s needs. Increased sharing of vehicles between departments and within departments should also be evaluated. With rightsizing (optimizing fleet size and composition), the College’s fleet can discover savings from cost and environmental perspectives.