Carbon Neutral by 2020. The mantra dots the Bowdoin campus, plastered on students’ computers and water bottles, displayed in College publications, and featured on the Bowdoin website. With all the talk this year about divestment and climate action, some might argue that Bowdoin’s commitment to carbon neutrality satisfies its stated commitment to safeguard the environment. 

Unfortunately, up to 60 percent of the carbon reductions under Bowdoin’s carbon neutrality plan do little to nothing to combat climate change. The carbon neutrality plan relies heavily on purchasing low-grade carbon offsets, few of which reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

To get serious about sustainability, Bowdoin needs to improve its investment in reducing its carbon footprint.

So what is the College’s carbon neutrality plan, and how did it begin? After a concerted student campaign pressuring Bowdoin to recognize the risk of climate change, President Barry Mills signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2007, pledging the College would achieve “climate neutrality.” 

In 2009, a working group comprised of students, staff, energy consultants, and trustees presented the Climate Neutrality Implementation Plan, putting the College on track to become carbon neutral by 2020 by reducing and offsetting emissions. 

Although setting an ambitious goal of reaching neutrality by 2020, the plan stipulated that roughly 60 percent of Bowdoin’s emission reductions would come from Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs).  

An REC is a financial instrument designed to encourage renewable energy development. Consider a firm which builds a new renewable energy project, like a wind farm. 

A wind farm produces two distinct products. First, it produces electricity which is sold into a power grid. Second, the firm can package and sell off its “green attributes,” known as RECs. 
Institutions, corporations and utility companies buy these RECs to provide an additional financial incentive for developing the wind farm. Theoretically, each REC purchased reduces emissions by providing the incentive for replacing one unit of carbon-heavy electricity with a unit of carbon-free electricity.  

Unfortunately, many RECs do not incentivize building new renewable energy projects. 
Mark Isaacson, vice president of Miller Hydro Group, a Maine-based renewable energy company that sells RECs, told Bloomberg News “Nobody is going to make a decision to build more renewable energy based on selling voluntary credits.” 

Why? Voluntary RECs, bought by institutions, corporations and individuals, have such low prices that they do not provide an adequate financial incentive to develop a new renewable energy project. These low-priced RECs do not reduce carbon emissions by replacing fossil-based energy with clean, renewable energy. 

Despite a Miller Hydro Group representative claiming that Voluntary RECs do little to incentivize renewable energy development, as of 2009 Bowdoin was purchasing 12,000 renewable energy credits each year from Miller Hydro Group’s Worumbo Dam project, claiming these purchases offset 7,000 tons of equivalent carbon emissions.  

What’s going on here? 

Bowdoin has been investing in low-grade RECs. Voluntary RECs, bought by private groups to create a “green” image, sell at less than $1 per megawatt hour. These RECs are just too cheap to incentivize building new renewable energy projects and reduce carbon emissions. 

But there are some high-priced RECs which do get new renewable projects off the ground. Compliance RECs, which utility companies are required to purchase to reach renewable energy quotas, can sell at close to $60 per megawatt hour. Private institutions can also buy forward RECs to raise capital for a new renewable energy project.   

Some argue that because Bowdoin buys Green-e certified RECs, the College’s REC purchases do reduce carbon emissions. But Auden Schendler ’92, a corporate sustainability advocate, argues that Green-e certification of an REC is the, “lowest possible baseline,” and that oftentimes these certified RECs do little to get renewable energy projects started. As voluntary RECs sell at a fraction of more effective compliance RECs, Schendler seems to have a point.   

Sixty percent of the Bowdoin Carbon Neutrality Plan’s emission reductions come from voluntary RECs, many of which do little to reduce carbon emissions.  

Although the College has made adequate sustainability investments in the past, it needs to improve these investments to actually become “carbon neutral.” When will the College agree to buy higher-priced voluntary RECs, like forward RECs, which raise enough capital to actually make new renewable energy development possible? 

When will the College start implementing plans for Solar Photovoltaic projects on our campus, referenced in the 2009 carbon neutrality plan but indefinitely stalled? When will Bowdoin buy more electric cars? When will the College join the movement to divest its endowment from fossil fuels? Bowdoin, it’s time to step it up.