Aaron Strong

Carbon neutrality should not be the end goal: Lessons for institutional climate action from U.S. higher education,” co-authored by Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Aaron Strong, appears in the September issue of the journal One Earth.

Strong worked with researchers from Smith College and nonprofit organizations Resources for the Future (Washington, D.C.) and Ceres (Boston). They noted that with their own heating, power, and transportation infrastructure, many higher education institutions (HEIs) function like small cities. With this in mind, they looked at the work of 11 of the HEIs that have already announced their achievement of net carbon neutrality to see what achieving neutrality actually entails, “highlighting the risks associated with treating carbon offsets, unbundled renewable energy certificates, and bioenergy as best practice under current frameworks.”

Strong and his fellow researchers said that “while virtually any climate action was likely to be constructive when HEI carbon-neutrality efforts began, institutions now need to think carefully about how to take action that charts an appropriately ambitious pathway toward decarbonization for society.”

Acknowledging that “neutrality commitments have served as an important collective frame, a catalyst for institutional change, and an action-forcing deadline for these HEIs,” they said that it was not clear from their analysis whether “net carbon neutrality alone focuses HEIs (or any institution) on where they can have the most impact or that it drives decarbonization at the needed pace.”

The group also proposed ideas for how “HEIs (and others) can refocus climate mitigation efforts toward decarbonization and actions that will help shift policy and markets at larger scales.”

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