Update on Cornell progress to carbon neutrality reflects COVID disruptions

Campus Sustainability Office September 16, 2021
Bar graph from 2008 to 2020 showing annual greenhousegas emissions for Cornell.  The 2020 inventory shows a 50% reduction in overall emissions, but notes that some reduction is likely due to COVID operations disruption.
Cornell completes an annual inventory of emissions from campus operations, commuting, and air travel, as part of our participation in the Carbon Commitment initiative and goal of reaching campus carbon neutrality by 2035. | See full interactive graph in article

Each year since 2008, Cornell has completed an annual inventory to measure greenhouse gas emissions.  The University measures emissions associated with campus operations, commuting and business air travel to track progress towards our goal of carbon neutrality by 2035. 

The most current inventory shows emissions for FY2020 from July 2019 - June 2020. The net total emissions for this year, after accounting for carbon sinks such as renewable energy credits, was 162,223 MTCO2e. 

For context, that is the equivalent of emissions from 19,500 American homes for a year, or similar to emissions produced by about 32,000 cars over a year of travel.  

Heat, cooling, and electricity used for campus facilities comprise the largest portion of Cornell's greenhouse gas footprint, with over 80% of emissions stemming from this source.  Gains in efficiency and our green building program have reduced the impact of this area over time.

Although the most recent inventory in FY2020 (July 2019 - June 2020) shows a reduction of nearly 50% from the 2008 baseline, this data represents about half a year of disrupted operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reductions were realized from disrupted operations, reduced campus density and commuting, and limited business air travel. 

It may be best to say that to date, we can measure with confidence that Cornell has reduced emissions at least 36% from the 2008 baseline, which was the reduction realized from the 2008 baseline as of 2019. 

To see the full inventory and explore interactive graphs, visit the GHG Inventory page on the Sustainable Campus website.

Whether additional reductions persist will depend on the extent to which behaviors and University policies around air travel and commuting persist, or become institutionalized. 

Travel choices could result in long-term emissions reductions

From 2019 to 2020, fewer staff, faculty, and students commuted to and from campus, and business air travel was greatly reduced. Note that GHG is calculated on the fiscal year, e.g. July 2019 - July 2020.  Therefore current inventory results show about 1/3 a year under COVID-19 operations. 

Although campus operations were somewhat reduced during COVID-19 (see this article on load shedding early in the pandemic and analysis of energy savings during pandemic operations), the greatest area of change overall was in travel patterns. 

Air travel between 2019 and 2020 was reduced by 13,049 metric tons of CO2 equivalent or a 53% reduction in that area of emissions.  F aculty & staff commuting was down 40% and student commuting was down 66% (students overall report higher levels of alternative transportation as their main means of traveling to and from campus on an average year). 

If Cornell sees a culture shift to participating in more remote work, learning, conference travel, and networking opportunities, the University could see a more permanent reduction in emissions in this area, in addition to financial savings and some social benefits in such as broader access to educational and networking events.

Currently, a working group of the Sustainable Cornell Council is focused on incentivizing low-carbon travel and assessing options for offsets for remaining travel emissions. 

“We have been surprised to learn that the COVID travel ban has brought real benefits for many researchers, especially for people with disabilities and those with significant child- and elder-care responsibilities," said Caroline Levine, the David and Kathleen Ryan Professor of Humanities at Cornell University and chair of the working group.

Caroline is working with a team of staff, faculty, and students to create recommendations on how to capture carbon savings from lower carbon, and remote, travel opportunities.  She and Amelia-Juliette Demery, PhD Candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a 2021 Cornell Women Leaders in Sustainability Fellow are analyzing data trends in travel to create the recommendations. 

"It makes sense to keep experimenting with alternatives to travel that increase access and lower our carbon footprint," Levine added. 

Juliette-Demery has provided insights to the group on how to analyze campus trends to inform policy reommendations.

"Some of the most interesting results from our analyses have shown that it really is up to all of us to make a concerted effort to reduce our emissions," she noted.

"That stresses the need to understand how travel impacts different departments, positions, and demographics, which will spur policies that will help Cornell reach its neutrality goal with equity and inclusion."

On track for carbon neutrality by 2035Key initiatives which have led to a reduction in GHG emissions in the past include the utilization of our award-winning and highly energy-efficient campus combined heat and power plant, the Beyond Coal initiative (which eliminated coal as a fuel source used to heat and power the campus), and Cornell's energy conservation initiative.

Additionally, reductions have been realized due to lower grid electric emission factors as New York State expands renewable energy sources and increased use of our own renewable energy including the solar farms and on-campus solar projects that provide clean power to the campus. 

Cornell University's continued support and progress towards the carbon neutrality goal can be seen through ongoing efforts to deliver on the Climate Action Plan. While excellent progress has made by improving the efficiency energy generation and it's use, it is important to note that the campus goal is 100% renewable energy.  Cornell will continue to work hard to eliminate the use of fossil fuels on campus as fast as possible through initiatives like Earth Source Heat.