How the University of San Francisco became the first Jesuit university to go carbon neutral

St. Ignatius Church, on the campus of the University of San Francisco (iStock/Bakstad)St. Ignatius Church, on the campus of the University of San Francisco (iStock/Bakstad)

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.”

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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.

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Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

Two articles on renewables that appeared in the last week, one in the last day. About the failure in Germany to use renewables.
http://bit.ly/2Yc0G80 from global warming enthusiast in the US
http://bit.ly/2DU9XtQ from Der Spiegel

Stanley Kopacz
5 months 2 weeks ago

Typical der Spiegel hit piece on renewables and climate change. How did centralized fossil fuel power generation work out for Puerto Rico? A friend in NJ didn't have power and heat for two weeks following hurricane Sandy. Germany is already suffering heatwaves and record floods due to CO2. If carbon neutrality is not achieved, it will only get worse. Thankfully, solar and wind and batteries are getting more efficient and cheaper with a lot of still unexplored technology space. The road to carbon neutrality will not be smooth or straight, but if the call to despair of the naysayers doesn't triumph, we can do it. The alternative is frightening.

Donald Jones
5 months 2 weeks ago

This is a great article! I had the chance to do some inspirational speaking there!

J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

One of the painful signs of years of dumbed-down education is how many people are unable to make a coherent argument. They can vent their emotions, question other people's motives, make bold assertions, repeat slogans—anything except reason. Thomas Sowell

I suggest everyone read Thomas Sowell, probably the smartest man in America.

Douglas Fang
5 months 2 weeks ago

It is funny to see that this quote can be applied to both sides of the argument. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". The feeling/perception is certainly mutual.

J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

Can the quote be applied to both sides? My experience is that it cannot be even close to equally. Look at America, the magazine, nearly all their arguments are based on emotion.

Douglas Fang
5 months 2 weeks ago

This is such a laughable statement because it is utterly untrue! Just look at the comments on any article in America that praises Pope Francis or criticizes Trump, you can see the raw and pure emotion in these comments.

Douglas Fang
5 months 2 weeks ago

Delete duplicate

Douglas Fang
5 months 2 weeks ago

Do you ever have the experience to talk to a young earth creationist? I have a couple of YEC co-workers and friends. Oh my, this is an eye-opening experience! They come up with a barrage of all kinds of “quotes and data” that are complete nonsense and hubris that you know that it is hopeless to have any kind of intelligent discussion with them.

In the meantime, the threat of climate change is real and getting worse.
Just look at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos where the smartest, most elite and influential global capitalists meet every year. These people mostly care about their pocketbook and give a damn about scientific reasoning. What are their most urgent concerns these days? Climate change and wealth inequality… Without an adequate solution, the future of humanity looks bleak.

J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

I have been communicating with YEC's for years. They are really good people but their science is based on religious beliefs not evidence and logic. But on evolution they are right on some important things. There is no evidence that new species were created by any naturalistic process. This doesn't say a naturalistic process did not happen but the evidence is against it. Anyone who points to natural selection as the reason for new species which are substantially different from what came before is either misinformed or misleading.

Douglas Fang
5 months 2 weeks ago

J – We had exchanged arguments in the past about this topic and I don’t see any need for further discussion. However, I just want to point out a few points that it’s up to you to see it or not:

1. Your position puts you in constant conflict with modern and consensus scientific knowledge. Whenever someone said something about the evolution that doesn’t fit your understanding, whether he or she is a prestigious and well regard scholar or not, you would jump up and down criticizing him/her that they don’t know much about evolution.

2. My position allows me to be at peace with the scientific community. Any new finding is just an example of the infinite wonder of God.

3. Your position discourages any real scientific effort to understand the evolution process. If the process is just a series of miraculous and divine acts of God, then why bother to pursue the inquiry? Just humbly accept that this is it and stop trying to understand it.

About prayer, there is a fundamental difference between praying for the will of God to be done in your life rather than for a trivial interference in the natural process, i.e. to make countless new species and let them extinct in the distant past just to help with the evolution process!

J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

You have just supported my position. No further discussion? Why? You have no answer. No scientist can provide evidence for any mechanism for evolution. Many claim there is evidence but never supply it. That doesn’t seem to bother you. I am willing to supply evidence. For example, there is no evidence for how new proteins could arise. Proteins are the parts of the machinery of life. They are extremely complex and exquisitely fine tuned to make life possible.

J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

The more interesting question is why do people claim something is true about science when there is no evidence for it. The YEC’s have their religious beliefs. What drives the scientists to do the same about evolution? That is the most interesting question of all.

J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

Your position discourages any real scientific effort to understand the evolution process.

Just the opposite. Why did you claim this? It is one of false accusations made to defend one's lack of knowledge or personal prejudices. It is a common rhetorical attack used by those who do not have the evidence. Interesting that people who don't have the evidence make the claim that those who do are the ones against science.

Douglas Fang
5 months 2 weeks ago

A brief comment about evolution. As a Christian, I believe in theistic evolution. The evolution process, which took place over many billion years, is not a random and blinded process. It is a process that follows the superb biological law created and embedded in the physical world by God since before the exiting of time (and space). This biological law is sophisticated and powerful enough (as it is created by God himself) to guide and allow the evolution process to go from pure energy at the beginning of the universe (after the Big Bang) to this wonderful planet Earth teeming with life as we see today under the providence of God.

I honestly don’t see the need for God to continuously interfere directly with nature in order for the evolution to take place. Believing so seems to diminish the power and wisdom of God from my point of view.

J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

I believe in theistic evolution...It is a process that follows the superb biological law created and embedded in the physical world by God

But yet no one can find this law or find any evidence to support it. Has God hidden it?
This is no different than what you are accusing the YEC's of. Your science beliefs are driven by a religious conviction. Best to follow the evidence and call the whole process a mystery.

J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

I honestly don’t see the need for God to continuously interfere directly with nature in order for the evolution to take place. Believing so seems to diminish the power and wisdom of God from my point of view.

Again you are concluding something about the mind of God, based on an assumption that makes you comfortable. In both instances you are begging the question. It also means that much of prayer is a meaningless activity.

J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

How about the Our Father, "give us today our daily bread", "lead us not into temptation", "deliver us from evil". All asking for God to intervene. Catholicism is based on God's intervention in this world. The greatest one was Jesus and His death and resurrection.

J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

For those interested in the evolution debate, probably not many, the issues are always the same. Life is controlled by probably the most complex computer program known to man. Life is thus, an exquisitely complex information system, built on relatively simple molecules but when assembled is the most complicated thing in the world. So how could such a complex set of instructions self assemble to precisely govern this complex system. Trial and error? That is what is offered but it would take a trillion years of a trillion universes to do this. It's a matter of numbers.

J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

If such a system did self assemble by chance, it should lead to evidence of how it did so. There should be forensic evidence showing how this complex system progressed at the molecular level. Yes, there is tens of thousands of intermediary life forms, but no evidence of how one turned into another at the genetic or information system level. And there should be in order for science to understand the constant progression that we see in the fossil record. But this evidence is not there. That is the issue. But most scientist will not admit this. Why?

J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

Some atheistic scientist admit this and are called the "Third Way." http://bit.ly/2JcXoOl but even they beg the question

The vast majority of people believe that there are only two alternative ways to explain the origins of biological diversity. One way is Creationism that depends upon intervention by a divine Creator. That is clearly unscientific because it brings an arbitrary supernatural force into the evolution process. The commonly accepted alternative is Neo-Darwinism, which is clearly naturalistic science but ignores much contemporary molecular evidence and invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation. Neo-Darwinism ignores important rapid evolutionary processes such as symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, action of mobile DNA and epigenetic modifications. Moreover, some Neo-Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis. Many scientists today see the need for a deeper and more complete exploration of all aspects of the evolutionary process.

J Cosgrove
5 months 2 weeks ago

The most interesting question is why this is hidden from the public. Once a person realizes that so called elites are trying to manipulate opinion on something like this, one starts to ask what else is being manipulated to affect one's perception of the world. It is not just evolution. So what else is there? Beware of arguments based on emotion, appeals to guilt and fear, that avoid obvious objections and worse of all attack those who disagree as ignorant.

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