Is USF Now Carbon Neutral? Depends on Who You Ask.

This year’s Earth Day at USF wasn’t like years past.

After a recent purchase of carbon offsets, the University announced that the school is now carbon neutral 31 years ahead of its 2050 goal. This means all the greenhouse gases the University emits are canceled out by offsite initiatives reducing carbon in the air.

Claiming carbon neutrality aided by the purchase of carbon offsets is subject to debate, however, according to multiple interviews with USF professors in the fields of environmental studies.

Carbon offsets: What are those?

Carbon offsets are investments usually in offsite projects that remove carbon from the air. For instance, the ones USF purchased “include reforestation projects, capturing methane gas in garbage dumps, or replacing dirty stoves with clean ones in Africa,” according to the University’s April press release.

Offsets are commonly utilized by corporations or universities to cancel out their emissions which they see as impossible to avoid, like air travel. These types of emissions are designated as “scope 3.”

USF purchased 27,000 tons of carbon, the unit offsets are sold, through 3Degrees, an SF-based clean energy strategies group, according to Vice President of Business and Finance Charlie Cross. Cross would not disclose the total cost of these offsets but said that each ton of carbon was priced between $2 and $20.

Are we carbon neutral?

“Wash our hands. Claim carbon neutrality. Celebrate it. And we’re done. That’s what it feels like,” professor Stephen Zavetoski said in response to USF’s carbon offset news. As an environmental science professor, Zavetoski said he thinks diminishing carbon elsewhere, and claiming carbon neutrality, amounts to “greenwashing.”  

“Greenwashing” is a term for when an organization advertises itself as being more environmentally conscious than they really are.

Zavetoski was one of several co-authors of the school’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), a 54-page document completed in 2014 which outlined avenues for the University to become carbon neutral by 2050.

He pointed to the fact that CAP calls for the use of offsets as a last resort. Zavetoski said that, while he is proud of USF leadership’s efforts towards sustainability, the school could do more before purchasing offsets.

Another environmental studies professor and co-author of CAP, Stephanie Siehr, said USF should first tend to and provide maintenance for current sustainable assets, such as the solar panels across campus, before putting money towards offsets.

However, Siehr said she understands that USF has to balance financial decisions with its sustainability efforts. She described the purchase of offsets as a “positive first step.”

Siehr also said that future investments on campus need to follow better sustainability practices. She pointed to a recent purchase of natural gas boilers and microturbines for the Koret Health and Recreation Center and the dormitory under construction on Lone Mountain. “So, basically, USF just spent more money on fossil fuel-fired equipment to provide heating and electricity,” Siehr said. “That’s a backward step.”

USF’s Sustainability Coordinator Richard Hsu confirmed the purchase of the boilers and microturbines.

Cross said in an interview that the purchase of carbon offsets is not the end of sustainability efforts for USF. He did not respond to emails specifically addressing the purchase of boilers and microturbines.

“No,” Siehr said when asked if the campus was carbon neutral. “It’s kind of like, we are at the point globally and locally, the buck stops here. Everybody has to do it in their own operations. And that’s where USF has the opportunity.”

Offsets are a positive step

However, multiple professors see USF’s claim to carbon neutrality as legitimate.

John Lendvay, an environmental studies professor who has been at USF since 1999, said the long-term picture of sustainability at the University should be considered.

“When I first got here, they didn’t have timers on lights in any of the rooms,” Lendvay said. He pointed to the solar panels the University installed on multiple buildings, and the restriction of parking permits to only those who live beyond half a mile of the University, among other sustainable initiatives USF has implemented.

“Is this sort of a feel-good thing?” Lendvay said. “Well, in some ways it is. But what I can tell you right now is, 20 years ago, no one from the school would have even had [this] question in their mind. And now you do.”

Professor Susan Hopp, who teaches in USF’s Master of Science in Environmental Management program, said that she views sustainability as a journey, and carbon offsets are a legitimate strategy. “I am really optimistic as a person. I do think that this step that USF is taking is a positive one,” Hopp said.

Hopp also argued that offset purchases provide attention and funding to areas of the world where a lack of resources can make sustainability projects much harder.

Hsu agrees that the University is now carbon neutral. “Becoming carbon neutral means we are removing as much greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as we are emitting,” Hsu said in an email.

The debate over offsets and their legitimacy is not limited to USF.

Second Nature, the main organization who oversees the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), an initiative that enforces environmental benchmarks for post-secondary institutions, writes, “The concept of carbon offsets is not without criticism.”

Second Nature says that universities purchasing carbon offsets may not help achieve global carbon reduction goals, and that “offsets could imply that richer nations have a right to produce more per capita emissions than poorer nations.”

However, the initiative also writes that offsets can cut more carbon from the air in the short run than expensive onsite activities, “which is why offsetting is a useful tool for institutions that don’t have sufficient financial resources to achieve their mitigation goals in the more immediate timeframe,” the initiative writes.

USF became a signatory of ACUPCC in May 2011.

A transparency issue?

In an email sent to President Paul J. Fitzgerald shortly after the carbon neutrality announcement was made, Professor Zavetoski wrote that he was also concerned about the lack of transparency with the offset purchase, since his department, as well as Hsu, were not consulted.

Hsu confirmed to the Foghorn via email that he was not involved in the purchase of the offsets.

“A certain trust was violated by purchasing carbon offsets behind closed doors, without engaging those who developed the CAP and are invested in its implementation, and then announcing with great fanfare through a news article and short film that USF had achieved carbon neutrality,” Zavetoski wrote to Fitzgerald.

In the email, Zavetoski also asked for the implementation of a University Sustainability Council that would report directly to Fitzgerald.

“When I read Professor Zavestoski’s email to me in response to our announcement, I was grateful that he took the time to share his thoughts and perspectives with me,” Fitzgerald said in an email to the Foghorn.

Fitzgerald confirmed that he would follow through with Zavetoski’s suggestion for a council.

“We will consult broadly to [e]nsure that the nominees have expertise, interest and the ability to communicate with constituencies across campus and beyond.”

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