When will Sewanee be carbon neutral?

Morgan’s Steep, Sewanee. Photo courtesy of Sewanee’s flickr.

By Luke Williamson
Executive Staff

Unbeknownst to many students at Sewanee, The University of the South became a signatory to a climate commitment, the Presidential Climate Commitment, in 2007. While this commitment entails a great deal, one of its central aims is to go carbon neutral–a goal Sewanee hopes to meet by 2030.

Working towards carbon neutrality, essentially, involves attempting to reduce carbon emissions until they hit the net-zero mark, a daunting goal for many.

Nick Cookson, Sustainability Program Manager, explained details of this agreement as he emphasized data points in a third party system called Second Nature, a system related to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) that manages multiple Universities’ carbon commitments.

Explaining the Presidential Climate Commitment, Cookson began by chronicling its history.

“It’s basically 12 signatory Universities and Colleges who got their presidents or Vice-Chancellors to sign a commitment stating that their University believes that climate change exists, and that they have a responsibility to act accordingly. Those 12 Universities started this momentum where, now, there are over 540 universities and colleges across the United States that have signed Climate Commitments,” said Cookson.

Cookson explained the gravity of such a commitment, alluding to the fact that many fail to realize the impressive nature of this kind of commitment.

“I came from outside of Sewanee; I came from the private sector from a fortune 500 company where I was trying to do stuff like this–to get the C-Suite to sign onto these public statements and stuff like that–and they didn’t want anything to do with it,” he explained.

Cookson illuminated a key detail to the organizations that he once worked with: they were financial institutions. While Sewanee is an educational institution, Cookson expressed his belief that, fundamentally, the two are not all that different.

“Well, this is an educational institution, but to be honest with you, it’s a lot like a financial institution because they have a Board of Regents, they have donors, they have an endowment and they have to manage that endowment,” said Cookson.

When asked whether or not Sewanee had already met carbon neutrality, Cookson highlighted the nuances which color conversations around the goal.

“That’s a tricky conversation, because Sewanee is both at an advantageous point and a disadvantageous point at this University,” he began. Cookson listed the disadvantages: Sewanee’s notorious fog which limits solar feasibility, its location in a fly zone for the Arnold Air Force base which limits its wind power feasibility, a hefty 65-year payback on biomass combustion investments, and the uncertainty of geothermal feasibility.

“But what we do have, our biggest asset,” Cookson remarked, “is the Domain. 13,000 acres of prime forest.”

Cookson explained that because of Sewanee’s Domain, hitting carbon neutrality is not the issue; the issue is publishing a public commitment that states the University’s dedication to keeping the Domain as healthy as it is today for decades to come.

“We could potentially go net zero tomorrow if the Board of Regents decided to sign a 100-year contract that would basically say that the forest had to be managed and maintained as is,” Cookson stated, explaining the gravity of a contract that would likely span greater than a lifetime for many.

“When someone hears 100 years, that’s more than a lifetime. So it’s hard for people, good, responsible individuals, to make a more than one-lifetime commitment. I’m not down on the Board of Regents about that decision, it’s just we could be carbon neutral solely because of the way that trees breathe.”

While it is unclear when Sewanee may become completely carbon neutral, Cookson’s highlighting of Sewanee’s carbon sink, the Domain, certainly illuminates its advantages in the effort towards carbon neutrality.