Pomona College greenhouse gas emissions up amid changing climate, covid recovery

This summer’s SAVE report shows that Pomona’s annual greenhouse gas emissions have risen by approximately 19 percent in the past year. (Unity Tambellini-Smith • The Student Life)

A report released this month by the Pomona College Sustainability Office revealed that the school’s annual greenhouse gas emissions have increased by an estimated 19 percent in the past year, putting emissions at their highest since 2019.

Three student interns, Diego Tamayo PZ ’25, Evelyn Mineo PO ’25 and Katie Chao PO ’25, helped compile data into Pomona’s annual Strategic Action, Visible Effects (SAVE) report this past summer. They found that Pomona emitted a net 2,243 tonnes more carbon dioxide equivalent in fiscal year 2023 (FY2023) — the period spanning from July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023 — than in FY2022, following spikes in electricity and natural gas usage and an increase in transportation-related emissions.

The SAVE report, released each October ahead of the meeting of the board of trustees, quantifies the college’s progress over the past year on its SAVE goals, a series of climate goals across nine categories ranging from energy-use reduction to sustainability education, with the ultimate vision of achieving carbon net neutrality by 2030, a goal known as CN2030.

“Carbon neutrality means that an entity or organization has no net release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere,” Chao said via email. “This is typically accomplished through a combination of reducing emissions, and purchasing what are called ‘carbon offsets,’ which are tradable certificates directly linked to activities that lower the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.”

Pomona plans to achieve CN2030 by cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half from a baseline of 2014 emissions and offsetting the remaining 50 percent. As of this year, Pomona has reduced emissions by 21 percent from 2014 levels, primarily through direct reduction with the contribution of a small number of offsets.

What caused the increase in emissions?

The report identified greater energy demand as one primary cause of Pomona’s increased emissions, following both hotter summer weather and an unusually cold winter.

“Electricity and natural gas usage made up the first and second largest portions of our emissions this past year, respectively,” Chao said. “Their contributions to the overall growth in GHG emissions by the College can be more or less attributed to weather. We’re having hotter summers and colder winters, meaning we’re all the more reliant upon our temperature control systems in every building we inhabit. This is simply a reality of climate change.”

During the 2023 school year, electricity usage, which made up 35 percent of emissions, increased by 9 percent. For natural gas, making up 31 percent of emissions, usage increased by 21 percent. This effect was particularly pronounced in academic and administrative buildings, which both saw gas usage increase by more than a third.

Nikhil Schneider, assistant director of Pomona’s sustainability office and supervisor of the creation of the 2023 SAVE report, told TSL that the increased usage underscores the importance of efficiency projects in the face of climate change.

“What [increased emissions] illustrate is not that our efficiency gains are being overwritten. It’s showing that the extreme weather would be having a much greater impact if we weren’t taking these efficiency steps,” Schneider said. “Any improvements we make are going to have greater and greater returns as we continue to have to use more power to meet our heating and cooling demands.”

In total, energy usage contributed an extra 653 tonnes of Co2e toward the 19 percent increase in emissions. The largest contribution, however, was from transportation emissions, which accounted for nearly 2,000 extra tonnes of Co2e this year as compared to FY2022, experiencing what the report refers to as a “drastic” 148 percent increase over the reporting period.

According to the report, transportation emissions rose as commuting and air travel patterns halted by COVID-19 returned to their pre-pandemic rhythms.

“Travel programs were pretty much curtailed entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Schneider said. “That was illustrated by our emissions taking a strong dip in 2021. In 2022, we saw some of those programs start to come back online. The most recent year was really the first fully normal year since COVID.”

Following COVID-19, a handful of study abroad programs returned for the 2021-2022 school year, but programs did not fully restart until last fall, meaning the 2022 report recorded far fewer emissions from study abroad related airfare: less than 1 percent of emissions in FY2022 as compared to 5.5 percent this year. Similarly, emissions from air travel — primarily student and faculty travel to and from conferences — jumped from 8 percent to 12 percent of total emissions in the past year.

(Unity Tambellini-Smith • The Student Life)

Emissions from staff commuting, which made up 7 percent of total emissions in 2023, nearly doubled.

According to the report, staff telecommuted less and drove from further distances than in 2022, and were twice as likely to make trips in a single-occupancy vehicle as faculty, a fact which can be attributed to a lack of affordable housing near Claremont.

The report says that advocating for affordable housing in Claremont “could enable more members of the Pomona College community to live where they work, resulting in more equitable and lower-emission commute patterns.”

Looking forward to 2030

Selene Li PO ’25 is a member of the CN2030 committee, an offshoot of the board of trustees which makes recommendations for how best to achieve CN2030. Li said that when it comes to planning for CN2030, the board has a “long-term thinking style.”

“2030 is on the horizon, but it’s still five years away,” Li said. “What happens at a board meeting ends up happening maybe five years down the line.”

In that time, Schneider said that big projects include continuing to improve the efficiency of energy usage in buildings, ensuring that energy-efficient design choices are made in new construction projects including the Center for Global Engagement — which is set to replace the Oldenborg Center — and switching from gas to electricity where possible, because electricity can be transitioned to renewables, whereas gas cannot.

“California’s energy grid is going to continue getting cleaner, but our gas is going to stay just as dirty as it is,” Schneider said.

Pomona’s electricity currently comes from approximately one percent renewable sources, primarily on its off-campus properties. The college aims to have at least ten percent of energy from renewables by 2030.

However, Schneider said improving this percentage on-campus is not dependent on Pomona alone: because the 5Cs share an electric grid, they would have to agree to increase reliance on renewables.

 “All five colleges would need to agree to enter that type of purchase agreement, and it would increase utility bills by 10 or 15 percent,” Schneider said.

Li, who looked into the feasibility of a 5C energy agreement in 2022 for a project separate from the board, said that to their most recent knowledge “the cost was essentially prohibitive.”

Li also said that funding in general has limited climate action.

“I think that the board is fairly constrained in terms of what they are able to spend, what they consider valuable spending money,” Li said. “A ballpark estimate of infrastructural changes … goes into the 10s of millions … so, I think that’s a thing that has prevented more progress.”

Despite constraints, Li said that they are hopeful about the trajectory of sustainability on campus.

“I’m working on this because I care. And I don’t feel like it’s useless,” Li said, adding that “it’s also nice that when I’m in board meetings I’m being asked for my opinions, my feelings on what students are concerned about.”

Schneider told TSL that he believes that the student voice has an important role to play in sustainability conversations on campus.

“Students should know the power they have to hold their campus accountable,”  Schneider said. “I don’t think every student realizes the voice they have and the voice they will have as an alum … It’s difficult to get your voice acted upon, but the first step is asking.”

The full 2023 SAVE report is available to view on Pomona’s website as well as through the sustainability office.

All statistics in this story are exactly those available in the 2023 SAVE report as of October 25, 2023. Due to the complicated nature of the calculations involved, statistics in the report may be subject to some change after the date of publication. For the most up-to-date statistics, the SAVE report can be accessed online or through the Sustainability Office.

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