Section: News

Kenyon makes progress towards 2040 carbon neutrality goal

On Nov. 5, the Office of Communications sent out a news bulletin announcing updates to the College’s sustainability commitments in accordance with the strategic plan and the sustainability statement it adopted this fall. 

According to the bulletin, the sustainability steering committee will develop a plan with concrete goals by 2022, which will then be re-evaluated every three years. In the interim, however, the College has taken several key steps in its sustainability efforts, including purchasing renewable energy credits (RECs) to cover its electricity consumption, incorporating sustainability into new construction — as exemplified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certified Chalmers Library — and moving towards fossil fuels divestment.

In 2015, Kenyon committed to carbon neutrality by 2040. Since then, students have repeatedly called for the College to take concrete steps to uphold this commitment, including an op-ed published in the Collegian shortly after the commitment and a 2019 open letter

The recent strategic plan makes sustainability a core tenet for the College’s third century. According to Vice President for Facilities, Planning and Sustainability Ian Smith, including sustainability in the strategic plan is a huge opportunity.

“The fact that we have specific sustainability and carbon neutrality issues identified in the strategic plan is a really good thing because that’s where, when it comes down to choices about the College’s resources and how to allocate them, the strategic plan is one of the governing documents,” Smith said. 

Students also see the strategic plan as an opportunity to push sustainability forward. Student interns at the Office of Green Initiatives (OGI) drafted an open letter earlier this year, calling on the College to set more concrete goals to  reach carbon neutrality by their stated timeline, and to be more transparent with its sustainability efforts. The letter also calls for an expansion of the environmental studies program and general environmental literacy efforts on campus.

“We’re very pleased that sustainability was included in the strategic plan,” said OGI intern Grace Cox ’23. “We just want to see a little more transparency. And I think that we have a good ability to achieve a lot of sustainability goals if we prioritize them.”

As the news bulletin outlines, Kenyon has already taken some steps to move towards carbon neutrality.

Currently, the energy Kenyon consumes is mainly from coal and natural gas. According to the news bulletin, on-site renewables are not currently viable for Kenyon, so the College has purchased renewable energy credits (RECs), certificates which correspond to a specific unit of generated renewable energy, equivalent to its expected electricity consumption. According to Smith, Kenyon purchased these RECs in early 2020, and they are specifically tied to a solar energy development in Texas.

Sustainability has also been a priority in new construction. Chalmers Library is LEED gold certified. The other two West Quad buildings, Lowell House and Oden Hall, will be LEED silver certified. According to Smith, they will be built to the same sustainability standards as Chalmers, but due to updates to LEED standards, will now fall in the lower bracket. 

“We didn’t take our foot off the gas; the roadmap changed,” Smith said of the difference.

Despite these new buildings’ sustainability standards, the OGI interns’ open letter raises concerns that the new construction is an unaccounted-for part of Kenyon’s carbon footprint. It calls on Kenyon to consider embodied carbon emissions, or emissions associated with the materials and construction of buildings and infrastructure.

Smith said that embodied carbon emissions are immensely complicated to calculate, and that to his knowledge no college or university does so. Madi Hamilton ’23, another OGI intern, conceded this point, but stressed that it should still merit some consideration.

“We can just assume, though, that building an entire new West Quad and taking down two dorms and putting up three isn’t going to be carbon neutral in any respect,” she said. 

Additionally, Kenyon is moving towards fossil fuel divestment. The news bulletin claims that by 2030, less than 1% of Kenyon’s investment portfolio will be in fossil fuels. 

Finally, the bulletin commits that a timeline with more specific goals will be produced by the sustainability steering committee by 2022, which will subsequently be assessed every three years.

Despite this commitment, the OGI interns express concern that the College has not done enough so far. “The reason we wrote the letter is we feel like it hasn’t been a priority,” Cox said. “ It’s not good enough.

Smith says what the College needs to meet its goal is a decarbonization master plan, which he sees as the bridge between the aspirational language of the strategic plan and the concrete steps Kenyon will need to take to be carbon neutral. Smith says this plan could take an academic year to develop, and then even more time to put into action. “It could be a couple years before you start seeing things going on,” he said. 

Many of Kenyon’s peer institutions already have decarbonization plans, which Smith said have been helpful to study. Smith specifically cited Oberlin and Amherst Colleges, which are committed to carbon neutrality by 2025 and 2030, respectively. He said he has also been taking note of what consultants and experts other schools have worked with, in the event that Kenyon decides to hire outside experts.

According to Smith, the first thing members of the Kenyon community might notice is updates to campus infrastructure. 

President Sean Decatur said work will begin this summer on South campus to lay the utility groundwork for new residential buildings and upgrade existing utility infrastructure for historic buildings. Decatur stressed that the process of moving toward energy efficiency will not be fast. 

“I think we’ve got some concrete work in place and moving the campus broadly to carbon neutrality is going to take some time,” he said. “It means that we need to just be able to build on each step of improving the infrastructure of campus in order to get us there.”

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