NAU maps aggressive route to becoming carbon neutral

2010-04-22T05:10:00Z NAU maps aggressive route to becoming carbon neutralCYNDY COLE Sun Staff Reporter Arizona Daily Sun
April 22, 2010 5:10 am  • 

Northern Arizona University is taking some first steps to outline how it will meet a very aggressive goal adopted in 2007 to become "carbon neutral" by 2020.

That means the university seeks to greatly cut its greenhouse gas emissions -- those gases responsible for climate change and typically produced by burning fossil fuels.

It may also "offset" some of what it can't cut by investing in carbon-absorbing activities, like planting trees, to get to a net emission of nothing.

Whether a recently released plan goes far enough on specifics to meet the goal in 10 years is up for debate.

Students looking at the issue in 2007 found that using electricity and natural gas were the larger sources of greenhouse gases for NAU, plus transportation (including faculty and staff airline flights).

The annual amount of all emissions grew 11 percent from 1991 to 2006, the students found, to 81,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.


Next up was a proposal to audit all university operations in detail, them come up with a blueprint for reducing them categorically, sort of like an annual budget in detail.

The plan released this month does not have that much specificity.

But it does propose the following:

-- Use more local, organic and free-trade food

-- Reduce emissions from commuting each year by using more hybrid cars.

-- Reduce the annual use of potable water per square

foot of building space by 20 percent in 5 years

-- Make sustainability part of every undergraduate education

-- Create ways of displaying water use around campus

-- Track all airline travel

-- Return to 2000 carbon levels by 2014

-- Return to 1990 carbon levels by 2018


"A big part of this effort is to create an overall culture of sustainability at the university. This will bring excellent opportunities for students across the university, will elevate our research and academic programs, and will save the university money over the long-term. Everyone wins," wrote Shelley Silbert, head of the university's Environmental Caucus.

That's a group of employees involved in talking about sustainability at NAU.

Darrell S. Kaufman, a professor in the School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, studies climate change, as measured by a record of past plant life now found at the bottoms of undisturbed lakes.

He thinks the plan is a good one.

"NAU's Climate Action Plan is the road map for students and the entire campus community to follow. It identifies changes in how we do business that no one will regret, no matter how passionate you might feel about the environment. The plan is bold and comprehensive, complete with specific actions, timelines, and measures of success. NAU is taking the lead with this exemplary plan," Kaufman wrote in an e-mail.

In a few weeks, the university will move forward on an extensive audit of all the ways NAU emits greenhouse gases, and where they might be cut, said Heather Farley, coordinator of a campus sustainability office, and a doctoral student.


Then the Environmental Caucus and perhaps other groups will approach NAU administrators annually with suggestions on how to do better.

"Honestly, I think it's going to be difficult to reach the 2020 goal. But if we keep that attitude, we'll never get it done," Farley said.

Another caucus member said the 2020 goal is the most important point, but that the university might have to do more to reach it.

"We do need to be a bit more aggressive, I think, than those intermediate goals suggest," said Bruce Hungate, a biologist who does climate-related research at NAU.

NAU students recently successfully lobbied for a $5 per semester fee on themselves, to pay for items like renewable energy demonstration projects.

The $170,000 it will raise annually could go to other projects to cut emissions on campus.

Also, there is a new master's degree program in sustainability at the university, which would train students to measure all the greenhouse gases the university is now seeking to calculate, for example.


More and more, state and other governments turn to a university to do the research on how best to combat global warming, said Rich Bowen, an associate vice president.

"It's a living laboratory. Students get to see. They get to research," Bowen said.

It's up to the university to find out what works by trying it, he said.

For example, he said, a field of dark, steeply angled solar panels near Interstate 40 this winter still needed to have the snow scraped off them -- maintenance the designers never anticipated.

But it's also up to the market, and to scientific advances, to help deliver renewable energy systems and other improvements that pay for themselves or compete with fossil fuels in price, Bowen said.

NAU buys its power from Arizona Public Service, and 90 percent of that electricity comes from fossil fuels.

It also uses natural gas, another greenhouse gas, to operate boilers to provide heat and water.

But over the past seven years, the university has been able to cut its energy per square foot of buildings by nearly 15 percent by putting in more efficient lights, adding more efficient boilers and replacing desktop computers with network-linked ones that use a fraction of the energy.


By this summer, every dorm but one will have energy-efficient windows.

Dorms also have low-flow showers, waterless urinals, and low-flow toilets.

There are seven buildings on campus that are or are applying for certification for being very energy efficient and otherwise sustainable.

In NAU dining halls and bathrooms, the former cafeteria tray is no more (saving water as well as wasted food), and napkins and toilet paper are recycled paper.

Plastic water bottles may be the next item to go extinct in campus stores and dining halls.

In purchasing new supplies, the university will make a list and aim for companies that minimize waste, use recyclables or renewable energy in production, transport their products with alternative-fuel vehicles, and avoid chemicals that might be bad for human health.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Sun. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(3) Comments

  1. Skrapps
    Report Abuse
    Skrapps - April 23, 2010 8:36 am
    Conservative View said: "With the current budget restraints, they could make a large impact on the "carbon footprint" by laying off the inept tenered professors, assistant professors and the many unnecessary administrators that are wandering the halls of NAU.This would kill tow birds with one stone in a manner of speaking. "

  2. Skrapps
    Report Abuse
    Skrapps - April 23, 2010 8:36 am
    Judging by your grasp on written English, education isn't big on your priorities list, so your view is understandable. But can you explain how laying off all of these professors will reduce carbon?
  3. Conservative View
    Report Abuse
    Conservative View - April 22, 2010 2:00 pm
    With the current budget restraints, they could make a large impact on the "carbon footprint" by laying off the inept tenered professors, assistant professors and the many unnecessary administrators that are wandering the halls of NAU.
    This would kill tow birds with one stone in a manner of speaking.
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