Background on OSU's Carbon Commitment

In 2007, OSU President Ed Ray signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), now known as the Carbon Commitment. As part of the Commitment, OSU set an ambitious goal of carbon neutrality by 2025.

In 2008 and 2009, based on community input and a review of goals set by the State of Oregon and the Oregon University System, OSU established its first Climate Plan. Prioritizing carbon emissions reduction is now also reflected in the OSU Strategic Plan

To aid the 2025 carbon neutrality goal, the Faculty Senate formed the Ad hoc Committee on the Carbon Commitment in 2018 as a network to promote carbon reducing actions within faculty and beyond. The Sustainability Office helps support this committee and its three working groups:

  1. Conservation, Efficiency and Transportation
  2. Education and Curriculum
  3. Reporting and Communication
Recording of Forum: "Carbon Neutral OSU: What you can do!"

On January 12, 2021, the C3 Committee held an one-hour forum to update the OSU community on the carbon reduction commitment and how OSU is tracking progress toward that goal. Attendees heard about efforts to date, and accomplishments such as policy changes, refined building heating and cooling controls, large scale solar installations and construction of the OSU Energy Center. Most importantly, steps were outlined to encourage climate action within departments, colleges and divisions, that will help OSU to meet its carbon commitment goal.

Questions received during the Jan.12 forum

The Committee and the OSU Sustainability Office thank participants for the questions and comments provided at the Forum, and for the many good suggestions. Below, we address as many of them as possible within our scope of work, and relevant to making positive progress. The task of carbon neutrality is a complex and difficult one, and we have only made modest progress so far.  The Committee will maintain its focus on that.  Some repeat questions and those which have been consolidated may not appear below.  As responses to unanswered questions are formulated, they will be posted here. 

  1. Is the GHG inventory generated by Scope 1 activities (i.e. does it exclude emissions from students and staff driving to campus?)?

    Yes, the inventory includes all of Scope 1 activities.  And yes, it also includes commute trips by students and employees, but those are actually part of Scope 3.

  2. Does neutrality mean just eliminating carbon-based energy use, or does it also include offsets through carbon absorption?

    It includes both, and offsets do not need to come from just carbon absorption (sequestration).  

  3. Do you track OSU’s agricultural operations, forest management, and other land use? Is the policy extending to carbon footprint of planned new construction and upgrades of older buildings on campus? Massive reductions in energy consumption and direct emissions can be achieved by employing state-of-the-art technologies in construction.

Yes, we track emissions from basic agricultural operations like fuel use in tractors and equipment as well as animal activities (like methane from cows, sheep, right down to the chicken!).  This exceeds what is required in the Carbon Commitment.  Carbon flow from forestry operations are not currently counted, but we will aim to start that within two years or so.  There are strict protocols for counting carbon debits and credits for land based activities like forestry. 

  1. Does that mean that the machinery used in the agricultural experiment stations is also not included?

    This type of equipment is included.  More info in Q3. 

  2. Would OSU consider signing this statement calling for federal action on climate change?

    OSU is a signatory of We Are Still In but have not yet internally discussed America Is All In.  The Sustainability Office has consciously chosen to not take action on this.  If the university community feels signing another of these is a priority, please bring it to C3 for discussion.  However, please weigh the cost/benefit from signing: know that discussing, evaluating and recommending to senior administrators direction on these types of actions is time consuming and will delay progress on carbon reduction projects at OSU.    

  3. I know that dining centers compost to reduce food waste. What plans does OSU have to extend these efforts to other parts of the university?

    Correct!  In non-pandemic years, we also offer composting in residence halls where the Sustainability Office and Campus Recycling have paid Eco-Reps.  University departments can also participate in the Departmental Composting program.  Please contact Campus Recycling at recycle@oregonstate.edu for more details. 

  4. How can OSU take a leadership role to help provide fossil free fund options in OSU employee retirement accounts?

    Fossil free fuel options for retirement accounts would be an important approach to consider, but is outside the scope and brief of the Carbon Commitment Committee. PERS is a large organization encompassing far more than just OSU employees. This option for emissions reduction could be taken on  by other groups.

  5. Are there opportunities or resources for outreach with youth? If so, how can we access them? I work for KidSpirit youth programs and wonder if there are opportunities to teach our youth community about OSU's mission and how they can help.

    This is outside the brief of C3, and the Sustainability Office is unfortunately not staffed at a level that could develop or maintain this.  However, the Education Action Team of the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition can probably help, and the 509J School District has a relatively new sustainability staff person dedicated to this work.  Please contact Brandon for a connection to the district contact.  If there are specific places where the OSU Sustainability Office can plug in some of our existing programming, we will be glad to help!  

  6. Is the amount of carbon released by web-based classes being taken into account?

    Any servers or other related support equipment at any OSU owned or leased facility is counted (via the electric bill for that facility).  We do not have the ability to measure externally hosted services like Amazon Web Services.  We also recognize there is an impact to personal living space energy bills for many people learning and working at home, but have no way to measure that. 

  7. It seems to me that there should be a way to incentivize decisions at the unit level.  One economic strategy would be to tax carbon emissions.  This seems like it would not work well within the university.  However, if reducing emissions could increase the budget (subsidize carbon reductions), this would help clarify the priorities and incentives to unit level decision makers.

    Yes, and in fact we are currently exploring internal carbon pricing and proxy carbon pricing to help drive investment decisions. At the same time, experience at the national and state level has shown that proposals to charge entities and individuals for carbon emissions can be very contentious; making the large investments and structural changes needed at the central university level instead of targeting individual units is likely to be far more palatable. We hope to have a recommendation for leadership this spring, which may include a later transition period of accounting for the cost of carbon without actually charging those added costs to units. 

  8. Just telling people to "take carbon into account" seems like it will have less effect than a clear incentive scheme.

    Agreed.  More info in Q10. 

  9. Why is the reported GHG emissions from OSU that says commute (5%) + air travel (7%) (about 12% of emissions) so much less than the statewide emissions for transportation which are reported to be closer to 40%?

    Statewide emissions measurements include all sectors of the economy, and in today’s world, sadly little is produced, purchased, consumed and reprocessed locally.  OSU’s measurements do not include transportation emissions from freight/deliveries, for example.  There are many “upstream” emissions that are very difficult to estimate but are also not required by the Carbon Commitment to be measured or mitigated.

  10. A large part of our electricity is coming from Pacific Power, which is giving us 60% coal fired power. What can OSU or Corvallis do to make Pacific Power eliminate coal use? Can anything be done to reduce the heat in buildings, especially when buildings now are almost vacant. This also applies to air conditioning.

Pacific Power is part of a huge, multi-state, utility conglomerate for which OSU represents a very small volume. While we cannot force Pacific Power to eliminate coal, OSU does have options to select lower carbon fuel sources.  Renewable Energy Certificates are the easiest immediate path to reducing emissions and carry a small price premium, but do not have a financial payback the way on site renewables or energy efficiency do.  The Sustainability Office is engaging with Pacific Power about larger scale options that would offer lower prices and result in new, real renewable generation being brought to the power grid as a result of university action.  If the university wishes to seek lower carbon options than Pacific Power’s long term offerings, OSU has the ability to buy wholesale power on the market but that’s an involved process that would require long term contracting and other complications. On the positive side, statewide directives are also pushing electricity providers away from high-carbon sources.

  1. Do individual departments have enough power/leverage to actually make significant changes in their footprints? Beyond doing a Green Certification, or doing energy efficiency, how can departments make large scale changes in a decentralized system?

    Departments and units can get an estimate of their energy use and buy renewable energy through a central purchase made by the Sustainability Office.  Our Travel Offsets program works similarly to buy carbon offsets for travel.  Please contact the Sustainability Office with info about your unit and we can work with you. 

  2. So - working from home to reduce carbon impact. There's an assumption that my house is more energy efficient per FTE of work done. If we have a carbon reduction mandate, do we have to do energy audits at home to be eligible to run our computers, lights, and heating while working at home to save on the carbon impact of driving? Multiply by number of people working from home - it would be interesting to see what the cumulative effect on power consumption in the valley has been having distributed the workload, and the energy draw, during the days we're at home. Because at some level, OSU buildings aren’t totally dark during this “down” time…

    We recognize there is an impact to personal living space energy bills for many people learning and working at home.  While energy audits and similar measures are not required by the Carbon Commitment, it’s always a good idea – and in the best interest of those paying the bills at home – to have that spaces be as efficient as possible.  Energy Trust of Oregon has many programs to help.   And yes, most OSU buildings are not truly empty during the pandemic so we have had to keep some systems active, increasing our carbon footprint.  What is missing are actual daily occupancy data for buildings, so that heating and ventilation systems can be turned lower for buildings with extremely low or no occupancy.  If audience members have ideas for how to accurately, systematically and continually count occupancy in buildings without huge system costs, please contact the Sustainability Office.

  3. What type of tree care and landscape operations is OSU doing to sequester carbon on site?

    The OSU Landscape Shop regularly takes the following actions to keep carbon naturally cycling on site:

    1. Leave grass clippings on the lawns to return nutrients.
    2. Chipping and recycling all pruning and storm damaged trees back into mulch for the landscape plantings on campus
    3. Application as groundcover of mulch and wood chips, also to reduce watering and weeding needs
    4. On-campus handling and chipping of woody debris and compostable material
  4. Are there efforts to convert woodchips into biochar and incorporate this amendment into soils on campus?

    Not currently in biochar format.  See also Q16.

  5. Or could you convert to electric tree care and landscaping tools and charge them with renewable sources?

    This has been studied by the Landscape Shop but current equipment battery life (both charge life and long term lifecycle length) is not adequate for commercial level application.  They have benchmarked with other schools where battery lifecycle is as short as under 1 year, making battery disposal and replacement more damaging that using fossil fuels in small equipment. 

  6. There are many two-stroke leaf blower engines being used on campus. Are there plans to phase out these notorious carbon sources?

    Yes, but battery powered landscaping equipment is not quite there yet.  More in Q18.  The OSU Landscape Shop is not staffed nearly at the level of being able to rake leaves on the 500+ acre main campus. 

  7. Adding solar panels to arena, barn and other open roof top areas throughout VetMed.

    Yes!  This is in our upcoming Solar Development Plan! 

  8. How about making solar panel covered parking in areas like crop sciences lot and around Tebeau.

    We are including some parking areas in our long range solar development planning.

  9. What is OSU doing to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips? Tran (2015 and cited here) reports that 80% of commute trips are in single-occupancy vehicles with paid parking permits. Stanford University’s share of the same trips was about 72% in 2000 and was down to about 50% in 2017, largely through raising the cost of parking permits and using that revenue to pay people to not drive alone (Commute Club gives $25/month to people who don’t buy a parking permit and commit to walking, biking, or taking transit).

    OSU’s draft Sustainable Transportation Strategy addresses just that.  The cultural and systemic change needed must be multifaceted and phase out “all you can eat” parking.

  10. Some in the audience may be aware of the upstream emissions impacts generated from materials- resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation of those products, etc. Could Brandon or other panelists speak to this and whether the University is considering including these "Scope 3" emissions in its effort to achieve higher emissions reductions?

    Indeed, upstream emissions account for a significant part of OSU’s total emissions, but our current economy doesn’t afford us the ability to measure accurately.  In 2009, a consultant estimated for us upstream supply chain emissions could add 70% to the carbon footprint of OSU.  More info here. While we must be aware of our upstream emissions and make choices that minimize them, we are at least a few years away from measuring them.  Additionally, the Carbon Commitment does not require us to mitigate them, although we may choose to in the future.  The decentralized purchasing structure of OSU presents multiple barriers to policies on this topic. 

  11. The university issues bonds for construction.  Is there a way that bonds could be issued for efficiency and retrofitting?  particularly if these retrofits will save money in the long term?

    Yes, and in fact the recent $300M bond sale includes funding for solar and other measures.  More info on this will be released in the coming months. 

  12. Would the OSU Foundation be willing to entertain a capital campaign for carbon neutrality?

This is ultimately a question for the OSU Foundation, but we have had positive dialogue with them on this topic.  Fundraising typically is effective only for targeted projects, and we are working with the Foundation on that.  OSU can help by articulating the funding gap needed for each project to the Foundation.  OSU leadership can also periodically remind the Foundation of the importance of having additional funding for yet-to-be identified projects, but in the end, donors are usually only willing to write a check for a specific project or activity. 

Carbon Pricing Workgroup

This workgroup researches and develops institutional carbon pricing policies to better measure, illustrate and address the effects of OSU’s carbon emissions. The group uses current science plus benchmarked actions from other organizations to craft policy options that will benefit OSU students for generations to come.

Objectives:

  • Create an internal carbon pricing policy that will advance the objectives of the Carbon Commitment and address injustices faced by marginalized communities
  • Continually adapt to the best science, following findings of OSU climate researchers
  • Present to and have policy adopted by OSU leadership
  • Evaluate policy effectiveness and potential to optimize benefits to the OSU community today and in the future.

Conservation, Efficiency and Transportation Workgroup

The Conservation and Efficiency Workgroup focuses on identifying goals, best practices, and opportunities for reducing the carbon emissions of campus infrastructure, and academic travel and commuting through policy recommendations and communication with the OSU community.

Objectives:

  • Promote and model use of Green Office Certification surveys for several OSU units/departments, offering mentorship and assistance where needed. 
  • Promote the new Green Lab Certification to be launched by the Sustainability Office in January or February 2020. 
  • Advocate for an increase in funding for campus buildings retrocommissioning projects
  • Advocate for carbon neutral construction in all major capital projects
  • Explore options to implement a program to offset carbon emissions from OSU air travel.

Education and Curriculum Workgroup

The goal of the Education and Curriculum Workgroup is to ensure that climate literacy courses are available to all OSU students. 

Objectives:

  • Creation of a repository for climate change course materials open to all OSU faculty. 
  • Creation of a free, transcript visible Sustainability Certificate available to all OSU students.
  • Creation of a small grants program for graduate and honors students to work on projects that will help OSU become carbon neutral.

Communication and Reporting Workgroup

The Communication and Reporting Workgroup facilitates, produces, and distributes information and active engagement opportunities for the OSU Community and beyond. This working group is exploring tools to engage the OSU community and market the carbon-reduction message.

Objectives:

  • Dissemination of Committee's actions through existing newsletters and blogs.
  • Submissions of feature stories in existing vehicles such as Life@ OSU, OSU Today, etc. 
  • Planning of talks/forums on carbon reduction.
  • Creation of information packets for students and faculty. 

Get Involved with the Ad Hoc Committee on the Carbon Commitment (C3)!

A representative from each Faculty Senate apportionment unit has a seat in the Committee. ASOSU and other groups are also represented. Your representative can bring information from your unit to the committee, and they can also bring information back to the unit for sharing and discussion. See committee membership here.

Committee meetings are open to the public and faculty, staff, students, and administrators are welcome to attend.

If you would like to receive updates about events and activities from the Committee, please fill out this form.

If you would like to participate in a workgroup, please email the Sustainability Office. Committee membership is not required to participate in workgroups. 

We invite participation by all.