Loyola’s commitment to eliminate its carbon emissions by 2025 is well underway, but there are obstacles that the university has to overcome to fulfill its pledge on time.
Loyola releases nearly 80,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to the Greenhouse Gas Inventory. To alleviate its contributions to climate change, Loyola’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability (IES) proposed a Climate Action Plan in 2015 to make Loyola carbon neutral — meaning net-zero greenhouse gas emissions — by 2025.
The commitment is broken down into three areas of carbon production. Area one, which makes up 19 percent of Loyola’s carbon emissions, includes things directly controlled by the university and produced on school property: emissions from onsite heating for buildings or for Loyola-owned vehicles, for example.
Area two, which accounts for half of the university’s emissions, is made up of emissions that are controlled by the university, but happen outside of school property, like electricity, the usage of which is controlled by Loyola but is generated at independent power plants.
The last 31 percent of Loyola’s carbon footprint comes from area three, which is everything else: transportation, water use, personal energy consumption — anything that the university doesn’t directly control but is generated by students or staff.
The Climate Action Plan pledges to reduce Loyola’s carbon emissions for areas one and two to zero, called carbon neutrality. It promises to reduce its area three emissions by 25 percent.
“As much as we realize that commuting and air travel and some of the other things that go into our scope three emissions are important and add to climate change … we also know that it’s a shared responsibility,” said Aaron Durnbaugh, director of the IES.
There are numerous steps outlined in the Climate Action Plan that will reduce Loyola’s carbon emissions.
The first, and the one that has seen the most progress, is energy efficiency. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rated seven campus buildings, including the IES, the Klarchek Information Commons, Cuneo Hall and the Damen Student Center as gold or silver-certified buildings, the two highest certifications. Many campus buildings, including the Corboy Law Center and the Quinlan Life Sciences building, have been designed or retrofitted to be more energy efficient.
But energy efficiency alone isn’t enough to make a campus carbon neutral. The next step is “exploring the feasibility” of various sources of renewable energy on Loyola’s campuses, according to senior Christie Kochis, president of the Student Environmental Alliance.
“There’s a portion of the Climate Action Plan that identifies that we want to have onsite renewable energy — about one percent is the target,” Kochis said. “We will potentially reach 1.6 percent, so above that target.”
Durnbaugh said a number of developments in recent years have made renewable energy installations more feasible, and Loyola is exploring those options.
The cost of solar panels, for instance, has dropped significantly in recent years, and the efficiency of the cells used in solar panels has continued to increase, according to sophomore environmental science major Paul Campion, who worked with Kochis to develop a plan to install solar panels on buildings at the Lake Shore Campus.
Campion and Kochis drew up a proposal to use solar panels. That plan is in its final stages and solar panels are on track to be installed between 2018 and 2020, according to Campion.
While solar panels will contribute to the overall reduction in Loyola’s carbon output, it isn’t able to provide the 50 million kilowatt-hours of electricity Loyola uses in a year, according to Durnbaugh. To make the rest of its energy carbon-neutral, the university will have to purchase its electricity from clean sources elsewhere.
“Purchased electricity is… about 50 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions,” Campion said. “If we’re only covering one percent through onsite renewable energy, then we need to cover the other 99 percent.”
To ensure its electricity comes from renewable sources, Loyola must purchase Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), certifications that the energy they use is produced in environmentally-friendly wind, solar, hydroelectric and other renewable plants.
Loyola began purchasing RECs for its residence halls in 2016 and will continue to do so because it decreases Loyola’s total energy consumption, according to Kochis. The Climate Action Plan predicts RECs will cover most of Loyola’s on-campus electricity by 2020.
But there’s one thing RECs, solar panels and energy efficiency still can’t neutralize: the natural gas that heats most of Loyola’s buildings. In 2014, the most recent report from the IES, 18 percent of Loyola’s carbon footprint came from natural gas, and the IES doesn’t know how to change that.
One possible way to compensate for natural gas usage is through carbon offsets, a market tool that reduces emissions in one area to counteract emissions made elsewhere. Companies and individuals are able to purchase carbon offsets, which represent one metric ton of carbon each, for as much as $30 to $40. Loyola’s natural gas usage could cost anywhere from $400,000 to $500,000 per year.
The Climate Action Plan accounts for the money to pay for these offsets, and for RECs and other programs, which will come from the facilities budget for each year as the plan progresses.
Offsets alone will not be the solution, however, according to Durnbaugh.
“We don’t want to do that,” Durnbaugh said. “That’s almost like making it someone else’s problem.”
Despite some uncertainty, Durnbaugh said he’s confident Loyola will reach carbon neutrality by the 2025 deadline, even if they don’t have all the solutions yet.
“Getting to be carbon neutral by 2025 is something that we can do, but we don’t have all the answers,” Durnbaugh said. “Some of them might not make sense right now, but might make sense five years from now. It’s a long time and technology changes; the financial situations of these kinds of programs change.”