How the University of San Francisco became the first Jesuit university to go carbon neutral
On April 22, the University of San Francisco announced that it has achieved zero net carbon emissions, otherwise known as carbon neutrality. “As Pope Francis wrote in his challenge to the world, ‘Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,’ every one of us has a responsibility to participate in swift and united action to repair humanity’s relationship with the Earth,” stated Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J., the president of the university. “For U.S.F., this is both a matter of justice for the poor, who even now suffer greatly from pollution and climate change, and a matter of justice for future generations who will suffer the consequences of the deleterious changes to our environment.”
U.S.F. is not only the first Jesuit college or university to achieve this goal, but it is also one of only a handful of higher education institutions in the United States to have done so. Charlie Cross, U.S.F.’s vice president for business and finance, explained that reaching zero net carbon emissions is very difficult “unless you are sitting in a remote area, where you can burn wood chips or put up giant windmills.”
The University of San Francisco has improved its energy efficiency by more than 40 percent over the last 30 years—all while the campus population has boomed.
For many decades, U.S.F. has been working to diminish its carbon footprint. As early as 1981 it installed solar water heaters, and today it has one of the largest solar power projects in San Francisco. In recent decades it exchanged boilers for new units that are over 90 percent efficient and also replaced radiators, windows, lighting, insulation and water fixtures. The university no longer uses oil or coal at all, and it recently began installing gas-powered microturbines with jet engines inside that produce electricity and then capture the heat generated from that process to warm buildings and water. Overall it has improved its energy efficiency by more than 40 percent over the last 30 years—all while the campus population has boomed, by 28 percent in the last 15 years alone.
The university has also worked to create a broader culture of sustainability. It provides no student parking on campus, instead giving every student a public transportation pass. It also offers a monthly supplement to offset some of the commuting costs for faculty who use public transportation, and it runs Backstage Bikes, through which students, faculty and staff can build their own bicycles for free. In this year’s national Recycle Mania tournament, U.S.F. students currently rank seventh out of 159 schools, with a 66 percent recycling rate. (Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, is currently first, with an 89 percent recycling rate.)
In 2017 the university bought Star Route Farms, which has been a leader in organic farming for over 40 years and sells produce not only at many farmers’ markets but to some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area, including Chez Panisse, Olivetto and Boulevard. U.S.F.’s food service provider, Bon Appetit, has committed to buying from Star Route—a choice that Mr. Cross, the U.S.F. vice president, notes is not cheap: “[It] costs probably 50 percent more than they can buy it through wholesalers, but they want to support local farms. And we’d argue the product is better.”
The university has done all of these things and many others—like bringing in a herd of goats once a year to take care of the brush that grows along the mountainous sides of the campus. Yet as Mr. Cross and others explored how the university could achieve carbon neutrality, they faced a seemingly intractable problem: Roughly half of the university’s emissions, or 27,000 tons of carbon this academic year, come from mostly unavoidable travel costs, like the costs of commuting and air travel to conferences.
Roughly half of the university’s emissions, or 27,000 tons of carbon this academic year, come from mostly unavoidable travel costs.
The solution was to explore carbon offsets—investments in projects that reduce greenhouse gases elsewhere. The university partnered with the local firm 3Degrees, which manages a portfolio of greenhouse-gas-reducing projects around the world, like the capturing and repurposing of landfill gas or methane from farms, reforestration projects, and cookstove credits, in which “you essentially provide a household with a new method of cooking,” as opposed to burning wood, explained Stephanie Harris of 3Degrees’ Carbon Markets Team.
Working with U.S.F., “we ask them what their preferences are [in terms of] types of projects, region or geography,” Ms. Harris explained. Ellen Ryder, the university’s vice president for marketing communications, said, “To be able to identify a broker that could work with us to identify projects that make sense with our mission and with Jesuit values was really important.”
Many of the programs 3Degrees supports offer benefits beyond carbon reduction. For instance, landfill gas capture has “water quality benefits,” explained Ms. Harris, “because you don’t have gases or other materials leaking into the local water supply.” Cookstove credits can likewise mean “improved air quality—no more of these particulates in the house from the burning of wood—and women’s empowerment because you’re freeing up time for women and children who no longer have to collect firewood.”
Every project that 3Degrees works with is verified by third parties, generally engineers and normally on a yearly basis, and certified by national or international registries. “It’s a pretty strict, rigorous process that these projects go through to confirm the emission reductions are real, permanent and irreversible,” explained Ms. Harris. And buying carbon offsets means paying for work that has already been done and verified. “I’m not selling something to U.S.F. that hasn’t happened yet,” said Ms. Harris.
When U.S.F. began looking into offsets, Mr. Cross was skeptical. “I thought the price was going to be exorbitant, not attainable.” But he was pleased to discover that the price was quite manageable, anywhere from $1.50 to $20 a ton. “We can blend together different project options that have a similar impact in different ways to bring the cost down for customers,” Ms. Harris explained. “And if a customer comes to me and wants to buy 10 carbon offsets, the cost is going to be [proportionately] higher than if they want to buy 10,000. There are economies of scale. We are a for-profit organization.”
Mr. Cross sees opportunities from carbon offset program for the student community. “I want to provide a mechanism for engaging students [in choosing projects],” he explained.
The university’s current slogan is “Change the World From Here”; through its many-pronged efforts toward the practices and a culture of sustainability, it seems poised to change what other Jesuit schools and institutions consider possible.