Northwest Assesses Feasibility of Going Carbon Neutral by 2030

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Northwest is known for its focus on environmental sustainability. The environment program,  farm and garden, and the dining hall’s emphasis on local food and waste reduction are all environmentally conscious initiatives at our school. There’s also the endowment, which has “transitioned to 100% environmentally and socially responsible investments,” according to the Northwest School website. The endowment is a pool of money donated to the school which builds up over time through investments; it is managed by the Board of Trustees Investments Subcommittee. Northwest’s commitment to responsible investing is important—students at universities across the country have protested their schools’ endowments in recent years, asking them to divest from fossil fuels. However, there is much more to be done. 

Climate change is caused by human greenhouse gas emissions which trap heat within the atmosphere and disrupt the natural carbon cycle, leading the average temperature to increase much faster than the planet’s systems can adapt. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change, like sea level rise, heat waves, and intensified droughts and storms, Earth’s global average surface temperature must not rise more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels (you can see the difference that even 0.5 degrees Celsius makes in the graphs below). To meet this goal, we must decrease our emissions and do our best to protect the planet from the already real consequences. 

For example, climate change exacerbates inequality: it costs money to build infrastructure or move locations to avoid some of these natural disasters so low-income communities are more vulnerable. Because of their lack of resources and support by federal, state, and local governments these communities are often forced to live in polluted areas. Due to the continued history of redlining and gentrification, education and job discrimination, racialized violence and criminalization, Black communities – as well as other communities of color who deal with racism and are targeted by discrimatory government policies – tend to be less wealthy. Around the world, people whose livelihoods rely on farming or fishing, for example, are heavily impacted by droughts or flooding. In general, as food scarcity worsens, a minority of people are able to buy expensive produce while everyone else cannot. These are only some of the reasons why climate change is a social justice issue.

Earlier this school year, the Environmental Interest Group (EIG) was looking for a meaningful project beyond recycling, reusable mugs, and clothing swaps. Jenny Cooper, the Director of Environmental Education and Sustainability, suggested that the group learn about carbon neutrality and what that could mean for Northwest, and everyone got excited. “I’ve learned a lot recently about how the majority of emissions come from a few large corporations and how important an area of focus that is when it comes to fighting climate change,” says Emily M (‘21 and a leader of EIG). “Although Northwest itself is definitely not one of those companies, this was an opportunity to look at reducing emissions on a larger scale which will have more impact than making changes on a personal level.” Iliana G (also ‘21 and an EIG leader) adds, “ this project is important to me because it’s a step towards tangible change. Far too often environmentalism is depicted as simply going vegan or not using plastic straws, but institutional changes is what truly will shift the narrative and create a more permanent solution.” 

Towards the end of 2020, EIG spent weeks working on a proposal for Northwest to go Carbon Neutral by 2030. Then on January 6th, a group of students including myself presented our plan to the school Facilities Board. We were approved to start work on a Task Force, the application for which came out this past Wednesday – so make sure to express interest by March 10! The Task Force will work until August at the earliest to assess the feasibility of adopting a goal of going carbon neutral by 2030 and moving to zero emissions in a timely manner after that. This involves answering prevailing questions such as the cost of going carbon neutral, what contractors to use, specifics of decreasing our emissions, and how to involve the NWS community in this process. 

 But what does “carbon neutrality” mean? It basically means “net zero” carbon emissions: any emissions produced are offset by investing in clean energy or carbon sequestration projects (for example planting trees, which take in carbon dioxide through photosynthesis). However, there is an obvious problem here. Many big companies purchase “offsets” equal to all of their emissions and then call themselves carbon neutral. This is called “greenwashing:” presenting an environmentally responsible public image without the action to back it up. By the beginning of 2020, more than 170 companies and 77 countries had pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, including the fossil fuel company BP. Many people are quick to point out that BP barely mentioned renewables in its plan and have noticed the irony that a fossil fuel company could call itself carbon neutral just by spending money which it made from… drilling fossil fuels. Additionally, some carbon offsetting schemes have been compared to colonialism because wealthier countries can pay to meet their carbon goals while making changes in less wealthy countries where it is cheaper to invest, sometimes without consent from communities. Offsets have also been likened to medieval Catholic “papal indulgences:” paying to get away with sins. 

Market solutions like this are almost always preferred by large corporations who are most responsible for climate change, as they allow the companies to maintain control of their profits and expenditures. Some argue that it could be beneficial to attach “exchange value” to natural resources so that companies have an incentive to protect them, but it could be disastrous to place even more of the world’s land and resources in the hands of a small few. According to ProPublica, “Everyone agrees forests are a vital buffer against climate change. The question is whether their preservation should be linked to offsets that allow others to keep polluting.” 

This is why EIG decided that Northwest should do our absolute best to reduce emissions and then buy offsets to counterbalance emissions which we cannot currently control (e.g. air travel until planes can run on electricity or alternative fuels). When bought through reputable organizations and diligently tracked so that they are accurately measured and not reversed, offsets can provide funding for renewable energy projects and other beneficial infrastructure that is urgently needed. 

With this in mind, EIG’s overall goal is to “reduce emissions as much as possible in order to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. All emissions from student programs/administrative airplane trips offset by 2022, intl’ student travel and domestic commuting offset by 2030. Zero scope 1 emissions by 2030.” The term “Scope 1” refers to all direct emissions from the activities of an organization or those under their control, “Scope 2” refers to indirect emissions from electricity purchased and used by the organization, and “Scope 3” refers to all other indirect emissions from activities of the organization, from sources they do not own or control. For Northwest, Scope 1 mostly includes emissions from school buses and natural gas in our buildings, Scope 2 includes electricity from Seattle City Light, which is already carbon neutral from a combination of hydropower and offsets, and Scope 3 includes domestic student and faculty commuting and international student/administrative/school trip flights. 

Which scopes are responsible for the largest portion of our emissions? NWS alum Jena U (‘20) completed a school greenhouse gas inventory between spring 2018 and spring 2020 and found that domestic commuting and international flights (school/admin trips and international student commuting) contributed to the majority of our emissions (1095 metric tons of carbon dioxide), followed by emissions from natural gas (125 metric tons) and school buses (65 metric tons). The graphs below represent Jena’s research. This information brings up the question: what should we take responsibility for? For example, should we offset emissions from flights international students have to take from their home countries? Is that part of the school’s footprint?


The graph above and to the left shows Northwest’s greenhouse gas emissions by scope. Activities in Scope 3 (commuting and air travel) are responsible for the majority of emissions, by far. The graph above and to the right rules out emissions that are not directly under the school’s control and only takes into account Scope 1 (natural gas and school buses) and Scope 2 (Seattle City Light electricity). This helps us decide where it would be most practical and significant to reduce emissions.   

The graphs above show the emissions produced by different modes of transportation, including air travel (scope 3), school buses (scope 1), and commuting (scope 3). The graph above and to the right excludes international student travel to show that when international student flights are ruled out domesting commuting produces the most emissions. 

The graphs above show which modes of commuting are used by faculty and domestic students. This data helps us decide how to reduce emissions from commuting.

liana G also did some research to find out how much it would cost to offset all emissions from different combinations of scopes. This is important because it shows how relatively inexpensive the process is: it would be easy to resort to greenwashing but it is also feasible to offset emissions like airplane travel which we cannot currently control. 

Average Price per Ton  Scope 1 (190 tons) Scope 1 + 2 (209 tons) Scope 1 + 3 (1,284 tons) Scope 1 + 2 + 3 (13,03 tons)
($12-$20) $2,280 – $3,800 $2,508 –$4,180 $15,408 – $25,680 $15,636 – $26,060

As I argued earlier, we cannot just offset all of our emissions—for example, there aren’t enough carbon sinks on Earth to compensate for the carbon dioxide released from human activities. So what can Northwest do to reduce our carbon footprint? Some of EIG’s ideas are to transition to electric heating/reduce natural gas usage, and reduce bus usage/increase bus fuel efficiency/possibly invest in electric buses. We should make our new campus addition a living building. However, like much of this process, the details are tricky. For example, during in-person school, NWS buses are used as an alternative to domestic commuting which is also a large contributor to emissions. It is important that we find a balance between these two Scopes, and that NWS does not just take responsibility for Scope 1 without accounting for other activities that are connected with the school. 

Luckily there is plenty of inspiration available from other schools and cities with similar goals. For example, Middlebury College became carbon neutral in 2016 through a combination of reducing emissions and offsets, after years of student and faculty cooperation. The school plans to shift to 100% renewable energy by 2028 and reduce energy consumption by 25% by the same year. One highlight of their sustainability strategy is their biomass gasification plant, which burns locally sourced wood chips to heat, cool, power the campus as a replacement for oil. This cut the college’s carbon footprint by 40-50% and though carbon dioxide is still released through burning wood, it moves more quickly through the carbon cycle (carbon is taken from short term storage in forests rather than long term storage deep inside the Earth). Middlebury saves $1-2 million in fuel costs annually due to the plant. Other projects included conserving 2,100 acres of campus, increasing energy efficiency, and investing in three new solar power projects for the school and surrounding community (8% of total energy in 2016). As is evident by their updated energy goals, “achieving carbon neutrality wasn’t an endpoint, but rather a milestone in a continuing and evolving effort to seek new technologies and advancements, monitor and improve systems, and create educational opportunities and continually set new sustainability goals moving forward.” This should be the case for Northwest as well. 

Seattle University plans to reduce emissions 12% by 2020 and 51% by 2035 through green buildings, offsetting air travel, providing access to public transportation, climate friendly investing, and waste minimization. 

In 2011, Bertschi Elementary School created the world’s fourth fully-certified Living Building with net-zero energy and water usage and three acres of undeveloped land set aside for habitat preservation. However, Northwest seems to be one of the only independent schools in the area with a carbon neutrality plan in the works. This is exciting!

With help from the upcoming Task Force’s research, hopefully Northwest can make some big changes that set us on track for an even more sustainable future. As cities like Seattle make changes to reduce emissions in response to the urgent threat of climate change, it is becoming cheaper and increasingly strategic to adopt emissions-reducing technology and practices. And along with engaging politically to pressure officials and corporations to pass climate change policy, Northwest has a responsibility to do our best to reduce emissions: our fairly large school is well known in the Seattle area and committing to carbon neutrality and then zero emissions (!!) would set an example for other institutions. Northwest says it is committed to social justice and the futures of its students so we must not hesitate to make sustainable changes if the planet is to be livable and equitable now and in the future. “I’m so proud of all the time and commitment that has been brought by students currently working on the project,” says Iliana, “and I’m very grateful for the alumni that passed on their work helping this project become a reality.”

Thank you to Iliana G ’21, Emily M ’21, Devon C ’21, and June P ’23 for all of your hard work on this project, and to Jenny Cooper for helping us so much along the way. You all are amazing!

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