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Climate action: what Bowdoin is doing right

April 19, 2024

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

As Earth Day approaches, I’ve been reflecting on the role Bowdoin will play in mitigating the climate crisis. While people traditionally write op-eds to criticize a policy or institution, I’d like to draw attention to something Bowdoin is doing a great job with: climate action. I believe it’s important to recognize Bowdoin’s impressive work on climate change, not to sit on our laurels, but instead to educate Bowdoin students about the importance of prioritizing climate change action.

So, how much do students know about Bowdoin’s climate action plan? This semester, I set out on an informal quest to find answers, asking people what they know about Bowdoin’s climate action plan. In a small but telling group of respondents, I mostly received a long “uhhh” or some form of “I know nothing,” with only a few students able to name actual steps and initiatives that Bowdoin has reached or plans to implement. Even a fellow environmental studies major I spoke to was unaware of Bowdoin’s plans, which surprised me. Given the rather dismal responses from my polling, I will share a brief overview of Bowdoin’s climate benchmarks and action plan.

Bowdoin became carbon neutral in April 2018 and as of 2024 remains one of only 12 U.S. colleges and universities to have hit this benchmark. To achieve this milestone, the College reduced carbon emissions by roughly 6,000 metric tons, or 29 percent from 2008 levels. To put that number in context, these reductions equate to avoiding the emissions from the combustion of 675,000 gallons of gasoline, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions equivalency calculator. Given that Bowdoin continues to burn fossil fuels, we account for the remaining CO2 emissions through purchasing carbon offsets, which fund projects that reduce atmospheric CO2.

To build off these achievements, in May 2022, Bowdoin launched “Sustainable Bowdoin 2042,” committing $100 million to adopt sweeping changes to create a fossil fuel-free campus by 2042. While Bowdoin has already made strides toward this goal by supporting numerous renewable energy projects to account for the College’s energy use, our largest challenge to tackle is campus heating, which burns natural gas and is responsible for about 75 percent of emissions. As a start, Bowdoin is renovating older buildings to be more energy efficient, with renovations underway on Sills Hall. With more efficient buildings, the current steam heating system can be replaced with low-temperature hot water, reducing energy use by roughly 30 percent. Once these steps have been completed, the natural gas heating plant will be replaced with a new energy station that runs completely on renewable energy.

In addition, Bowdoin has committed to converting the vehicle fleet and the maintenance equipment to be 100 percent electric by 2027 and 2030, respectively. Already, the Bowdoin Grounds Department has acquired 7 electric mowers, 3 electric utility vehicles and over a dozen electric maintenance tools, I was told by staff in the Office of Sustainability. In addition, this year, Bowdoin replaced two gas-powered sprinter vans with Ford’s electric work vans and added a 5-seater EV—the last of which students can request to use for student group outings.

Looking at the climate work of other schools, some of which Bowdoin has collaborated with on climate initiatives, highlights how colleges across New England share a motivation to mitigate climate change and that Bowdoin leads in this regard. Bowdoin’s closest peers, Colby College and Bates College, have also achieved carbon neutrality and significantly reduced fossil fuel use. Importantly, Bowdoin plans to achieve significant climate milestones before some leading institutions in New England: MIT, for example, hopes to achieve carbon neutrality by 2026 and eliminate on-campus emissions by 2050—both targets falling eight years after Bowdoin’s achievement and planned achievement of the same goals.

Bowdoin is in elite company as a leading institution for sustainability, but there is always more work to do. By informing themselves about Bowdoin’s efforts to reduce emissions, students can more actively participate in this work and even help the College achieve the fossil fuel-free goal ahead of 2042. Beyond campus, student involvement and engagement with Bowdoin climate action has the potential to have wide-ranging impacts as we graduate and become leaders across various fields. So, here is my simple call to action as a Bowdoin community member: Take 10 minutes to skim the Bowdoin Climate Action Plan and as a bonus, have a conversation with someone about what you think (say, right now, as you read this in Moulton or Thorne).

Owen Chian Ratliff is a member of the Class of 2025.


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