Pitt has committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2037. Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh.

A student-led pilot program that scored local higher education institutions on their climate change initiatives found some impressive wins but many shortcomings.

The Three Rivers Assessment of Carbon Emissions tracks schools’ efforts toward carbon neutrality and climate education. The program is conducted by 350 Pittsburgh, a local chapter of the global climate change organization, 350.org. Schools participating in the Pittsburgh Higher Education Climate Consortium are Carnegie Mellon University, Robert Morris University and the University of Pittsburgh. The recent scorecard was based on 2023 findings.

Only 12 colleges and universities in the country have reached carbon neutrality, including two in Pennsylvania: Allegheny College and Dickinson College.

The TRACE scorecard utilized Middlebury College in Vermont as a benchmark school. Middlebury reached carbon neutrality in 2016.

Jim Blakely is a member of the 350 Pittsburgh Steering Committee and the lead designer of the 350 Pittsburgh TRACE Scorecard. He is also a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University.

“We started working a few years ago to see how to influence the larger institutions in the region towards carbon neutrality,” Blakely says. “We focused on these institutions fairly quickly because they are more advanced than many of the other institutions and feel more of a responsibility to getting to carbon neutrality.”

TRACE scores five main categories: commitments and execution, structures and plans, transparency, education and research, and regional leadership.

Blakely adds that involving students pressures institutions to advance carbon neutrality and climate education.

“We felt that getting engaged with the students at the schools would be valuable not only for us, but for the students themselves,” he says.

TRACE team members unveil their findings on March 12 at the Energy Innovation Center. The scorecards for Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh show progress toward carbon neutrality with room for improvement. The scorecard for Robert Morris University shows a need for more deliberate steps toward campus sustainability. Photo courtesy of Jim Blakely.

Ella Vander Velde is a sophomore environmental engineering student and the student liaison from CMU Sustainable Earth.

“We want to frame the results in a positive way,” Velde says. “We feel that allowing schools to collaborate is more motivating.”

TRACE reported a few key findings among the schools scored. Carnegie Mellon and Pitt ranked highly in progress toward achieving carbon neutrality, but the schools need to improve transparency.

“It was hard to find the information,” Blakely says, noting that schools are not apt to publish their plans and data in an accessible manner.

The three universities also have progress to make in their financing and funding. Pressure is mounting from students and sustainability leaders for higher education institutions to divest investment portfolios from the fossil fuel industry.

“Even the schools that are relatively transparent in the way that they’re addressing their curriculums and their operations, they’re not making it clear where their endowments are invested and what their plans are in making their endowments carbon neutral,” Blakely adds.

That lack of transparency, TRACE says, prevents full accuracy of the scoring. TRACE allows schools to clarify any missing information before publishing the results.

TRACE notes: “The scorer contacts an appropriate school representative to gather and clarify any missing information and then updates the score based on new information. If the school does not respond, the original scoring stands. While schools get a preliminary review of their own score, 350 Pittsburgh determines the final score.”

“My main ask is for universities to care about the issues that their students care about,” Velde adds. “I think that’s very valuable and one of the things I hope TRACE will make them aware of.”

TRACE plans to score the seven remaining Pittsburgh Higher Education Climate Consortium schools by the end of the year. Those schools are Carlow University, Chatham University, Community College of Allegheny County, Duquesne University, La Roche University, Penn State Center Pittsburgh and Point Park University.

Highlights of the Three Rivers Assessment of Carbon Emissions

Carnegie Mellon University

Grade: B

“Given its international recognition, research strength and importance to the region, CMU bears a particular responsibility in the carbon-free transition for the region and the world.”

Carnegie Mellon committed to carbon neutrality by 2030 and has made some progress, including through strategic electric and heating changes. TRACE notes CMU has yet to divest. from fossil fuel investments. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

Highs

Carnegie Mellon has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions in electricity generation and building heating through a direct renewable energy power purchase agreement as well as converting its Bellefield steam plant to natural gas.

CMU also committed to carbon neutrality by 2030 last fall by joining the Second Nature Climate Leadership Network. It has also developed its own Sustainable Development Goals.

Each new building on CMU’s campus will follow Green Building Alliance and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) guidelines.

Areas for improvement

CMU has no commitment to divesting from fossil fuel research and investment portfolios. It has also yet to publish its own climate action plan for the university.

Robert Morris University

Grade: D

“RMU has historically set its sights on climate sustainability but disbanded its sustainability team in 2011 for unknown reasons; since then, little work has been done to reduce carbon emissions. RMU demonstrates few current climate initiatives, but a strong community education foundation from which an even stronger environmental entity may be developed with climate-conscious decision-making.”

Robert Morris University earned a “D” rating from the TRACE scorecard. Areas for improvement include forming a sustainability office and determining sustainability goals. Photo by Terry Clark.

Highs

RMU has an environmental science program and student organization that meets monthly.

Areas for improvement

RMU has no sustainability office and no concrete goals or plans to reduce emissions. Additionally, there is no information available to the public regarding any plans or visions.

University of Pittsburgh

Grade: B

“In the past few years, the university has taken substantial strides in addressing climate change. This includes a commitment to carbon neutrality by 2037 detailed in the 2022 Pitt Climate Action Plan, which has already seen progress.”

The University of Pittsburgh has seen a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 2019. TRACE notes that the university has not announced plans to divest from fossil fuels and its progress toward carbon neutrality relies heavily on carbon offsets. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/iStock photo.

Highs

Pitt has seen a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2019 to 2022. The decline is attributed to improvements like propane-powered shuttle buses, purchased renewable energy and decreased electricity usage.

The Office of Sustainability is well-staffed, and the university has a sustainability plan and climate action plan. The reporting system is also accessible through the sustainability website, and the office publishes an annual greenhouse gas and nitrogen inventory. There is also an environmental curriculum, and the university played a key role in founding HECC, the Higher Education Climate Consortium.

Areas for improvement

The university has not indicated plans to divest from fossil fuels, and its progress on carbon neutrality is heavily dependent on carbon offsets. Carbon offsets are purchased credits that fund projects that reduce carbon elsewhere. The buyer receives credit for the reduction.

A Pittsburgh native, Ethan is a freelance journalist interested in telling the stories of people doing great things to build community and sustainability. Ethan served as Editor-in-Chief of Allegheny College's newspaper, The Campus.