Pomona Aims to be Carbon Neutral by 2030

Pomona College will aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, President David Oxtoby announced Feb. 7 in an email to the student body. The target, which is later than the goal of 2022 that the President's Advisory Committee on Sustainability (PACS) recommended to Oxtoby in November, marks the date by which the college plans to offset or remove all greenhouse gas emissions. 

The biggest change in energy consumption to reach carbon neutrality will come through the retro-commissioning of current buildings, streamlining their energy use through extensive renovations.

"If you’re really going to rethink how a building functions, that’s a major project," Oxtoby said. "Choosing 2030 lets us go through a cycle of doing the major work on most of the buildings on campus, whereas 2022 would result in a lot of the building projects being done, but others would just be sitting there waiting."

Professor Char Miller, the director of the environmental analysis program at Pomona and a member of PACS, said that he was “happily surprised” with the 2030 deadline because he feared that it could have been pushed back to 2050. However, Miller said that it will not be easy meeting carbon neutrality in just 15 years because the change will require substantial action beyond institutional changes.

“It is going to be a challenge to reach neutrality,” he said. “Part of that challenge is prioritizing our steps and moving after them as rapidly as we can. Pomona has been very good about the sustainability piece, but it’s not yet gotten to the point of ratcheting down on some of the critical elements of life here—driving, for example—and that’s going to require a lot personal behavior change.”

The data retrieved by the Sustainability Integration Office (SIO) on Pomona’s total greenhouse gas emissions confirm Miller’s concerns. According to its 2012-2013 report on total greenhouse gas emissions, the categories of commuting and college travel—the energy used to transport students to campus from their hometowns—accounts for 35 percent of emissions. However, building energy use represents the largest portion of emissions on campus, at 57 percent of the total.

According to Miller, Pomona will have to address both of these emissions sources, institutional and individual, to achieve neutrality by 2030. 

He said that there is a question of whether the college should prioritize changing its energy sources to more renewable ones, or reducing energy consumption through retro-commissioning. 

For Pomona Energy Manager Michelle McFadden, the answer lies in the latter.  

“A lot of people think that 100 percent green energy is the solution, but that does nothing to address the root cause of our carbon emissions,” McFadden said. “You don’t buy a whole new wardrobe and then go on a diet; you buy clothes once you’ve lost the weight. Similarly, we need to first lose our carbon weight and then we can properly size the renewable systems [and] figure out what our carbon waistline is and tailor a solution to that.”

But retro-commissioning has its limits, SIO Director Ginny Routhe said. 

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve come to realize that there are limitations to the amount of greenhouse gases that we can feasibly reduce within the building structure before we have to really look hard into energy supply,” she said. 

McFadden is hopeful about what a campus-wide retro-commissioning effort could produce, despite its limitations. 

“At my first energy director position at Caltech [the California Institute of Technology], we saw a 12 percent reduction in total emissions in three years just by retro-commissioning a portion of the buildings,” she said.

Miller said that, because the college announced in September that it would not divest any of its endowment from fossil fuel funds, campus dialogue about energy supply should refocus on carbon neutrality.

“Now it needs to be framed around this carbon neutrality drive because we’re not going to divest, we got second-best," he said. "What those conversations will do is not divest us from our [financial] investments, but divest us slowly in terms of how we as a campus and a community reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emission we utilize.”

According to Miller, the divestment campaign “molded our conversation about global climate change here on campus in unprecedented ways." 

"[Divestment] caught the imagination of the campus," Routhe said. "The conversation about carbon neutrality ties in heavily with the conversations about moving away from fossil fuels." 

Oxtoby, however, denied that the divestment campaign influenced the college's decision to commit to carbon neutrality.

“Those were really good discussions, but, in my view, somewhat in a different direction than this,” he said.

5C Divestment Campaign member Emily Hill PO ’16 said that although Oxtoby recognized the group for drawing the college community's attention to climate action, he was turning his back on the real purpose of the group's campaign.

Divestment, she said, is a "broader political change, connected to a larger national and international movement, and Pomona seems reluctant to take on those goals."

“We feel that Pomona could be committing to be doing more,” she said. “The school is viewing this only to better the school itself. That’s why the 2030 date is okay for the school, because it’s both manageable and reasonable. But in terms of larger political impacts, and just being committed to a greater social good, it’s not really achieving much, nor is it the school’s focus. The image they’re putting out there is weak.”

Miller said that Pomona cannot work toward sustainability on its own. 

"It sits within a college cluster, which sits within a town, which sits within a bioregion," he said. "If we really want to make an educational statement, part of that statement has to be outside these borders. It should not end with us if this is actually going to have any sort of impact.”