After 14 years, this university achieved carbon neutrality

The University of Lynchburg made a bold commitment more than a decade ago to embrace sustainability. It reached a major milestone last month, but its work is not done.

Climate Commitment. It is not only a statement on the future but also a living document college presidents and chancellors can sign from nonprofit Second Nature, agreeing to make impactful changes to achieve more sustainable campus environments.

In 2007, The University of Lynchburg accepted the challenge. Through the years it has taken actionable steps – some simple, some not so simple – to do its part in making its 264 acres in Virginia more climate friendly.

The investments in time and capital have paid off. This private institution with just under 3,000 students announced recently it has achieved Step 3 in the commitment – carbon neutrality.

The University of Lynchburg becomes one of less than a dozen institutions nationwide and the first in its commonwealth to achieve the status. President Dr. Alison Morrison-Shetlar recently doubled down on that pledge by re-signing the Climate Commitment that had first been initiated by former President Ken Garren. It also joined Second Nature’s Climate Leadership Network.

“Climate change is the most significant environmental challenge of our time and one practical way to make a difference is for institutions like ours to not only reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but also support initiatives that reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to offset our own emissions,” Morrison-Shetlar said.

More from UB: How more colleges achieve carbon neutrality

Dr. Laura Henry-Stone, associate professor of environmental science and sustainability at Lynchburg, agreed, saying that commitment will be an example for those on campus and other institutions to follow.

“Taking this final step to become carbon-neutral will solidify our leadership role so that we can continue to serve as an example of strategies for campuses like ours,” she said. “It will also demonstrate to our students how to address global environmental challenges such as climate change. This generation of students will be at the forefront of pursuing solutions to these types of challenges, and it is our responsibility in higher education to give them the tools they will need to succeed.”

How they made it happen

For Lynchburg to get to that goal, it took a huge commitment from the university and a variety of stakeholders and leaders. One of them Steve Bright, the Vice President for Business and Finance, helped to forge many initiatives that set the path toward carbon neutrality, including:

  • Purchasing green energy from Virginia-based Collegiate Clean Energy, which converts harmful gases from landfills and repurposes them back cleanly for use in powering grids. Several other institutions also use the provider including Randolph College, Hollins University and Sweet Briar College.
  • Pouring nearly $5 million into nearly two dozen energy-saving investments such as low-flow toilets, showerheads, faucets and “smart” irrigation systems. The result: a 45% reduction in water and a 35% savings in electricity.
  • Agreeing to a plan along with 15 other Virginia colleges to assess the potential for bringing solar power to campus through the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative. Lynchburg said it is close to a deal with its renewable energy provider.
  • “Load-shedding” or lowering its impact on the grid by reducing energy during high-usage times.

Lynchburg has relied on several other campus champions to get to its goals: campus maintenance and grounds professionals as well as dining services and operations leaders that helped the university’s cafeteria earn a Level 1 Certified Green Restaurant designation.

Henry-Stone and graduate assistant Lindsey Van Zile also have been utilizing the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s STARS tool to further evaluate the university’s progress.

“Our STARS assessment will help us better understand what we are already doing well on campus and identify areas where we can improve,” Henry-Stone said. “We already know we are doing well regarding our carbon footprint and in areas such as dining services. On the other hand, a significant component of the assessment involves the extent to which sustainability is represented throughout our curriculum and faculty research.”

The process is still ongoing

Though getting to carbon neutral was the ultimate goal, the work is still not done at Lynchburg or at other institutions.

“Our global climate is at the point where it won’t be enough to just stop putting carbon into the atmosphere,” Henry-Stone said. “We need to pursue ways to actually remove carbon, as well, through processes that sequester carbon, such as by planting and maintaining appropriate trees and crops.”

To that end, the university is looking hard at the purchase of carbon offsets, those measures that help to offset greenhouse gases that can’t be prevented. One example is tree planting.

And that may work well for a university such as Lynchburg or others that have large natural spaces, preserves or habitats. Lynchburg has its own nature center that comprises 400 acres of forest and the potential for a wetlands area.

Formerly faculty member Dr. Michael Craig was one of those instrumental in helping the university get to carbon neutrality and says offsets may help.

“There is still room for progress,” Craig said. “One of the next big steps the university can take is to calculate the carbon sequestration capacity of Claytor Nature Center and the soon-to-be Black Water Creek Wetlands. Ideally, these two locations will generate enough offsets so the university does not have to purchase offsets in the market. If the university continues to reduce emissions elsewhere, they would even be able to sell excess, campus-generated offsets to continue funding other sustainability initiatives. This would serve as a powerful demonstration of the financial benefits of sustainability and conservation.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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