A graph displaying CO2 emissions from Davidson college over time. Net emissions hover around 25k MTCO2 per year while slowly decreasing
Davidson College emissions over time. Data via Second Nature.

Georgia Hall ’25 (She/Her), Staff Writer

With the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) concluding in Glasgow this weekend, a reevaluation of Davidson College’s rhetoric on climate change is in order. Though Davidson College continues to pursue macro, long-term institutional change, the Climate Action Plan, approved in Summer 2021, is working on the college’s new short term goals. 

According to a New York Times article, in 2014, the world was on track to warm by four degrees Celsius by 2100. Due to new green energy policies, by the same estimate the planet will warm by just under three degrees Celsius by 2100. At COP26, countries are reaffirming on paper their pledge to enact policies that will limit emissions to between two and two-point four degrees celsius by 2100 to achieve carbon neutrality. However, according to the latest IPCC report from October 8, 2021, the world would need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 49% of 2017 levels by 2030 to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Despite these statistics, China, Russia, and India, some of the world’s largest polluters, are not attending COP26 in person. India even recently stated that they are pledging to reach net-zero emissions by 2070, 20 years later than the majority of countries taking part. 

In light of the current climate emergency, Davidson’s Sustainability Office is working hard to make changes. In August 2021, the new Climate Action Plan for Davidson was approved by the administration. Yancey Fouché, Director of Sustainability at Davidson, said “In the original plan, the institution committed to being carbon neutral by 2050…we’ve [since] updated it.” Fouché said “2050 was too far into the future” to measure climate policy changes and goals: “talking about these lofty commitments is abstract.” Long-term projects tend to suffer from “leadership transition,” according to Fouché, and meaningful change is consequently unable to take place. As a result, the new Climate Action Plan spans only 2021-2026. Although Davidson still has the big picture goal of carbon neutrality in 2050, the focus is on smaller scale time frames, to try to create more effective change to campus. 

Fouché acknowledged that even in this five-year plan, “We are making trade-offs—we have limited time and limited money.” An example of this trade-off would be individual vehicular travel. Cars are the predominant mode of transportation among students and staff and consequently a large source of emissions. However, due to the lack of sufficient public transport options, Fouché and the Sustainability Office are placing attention elsewhere. 

While the Sustainability Office may not be thinking about vehicular travel, Fouche did add that “we are thinking about air travel.” There are “three specific categories [for reduction]: athletics air travel, education abroad air travel, and general business travel.” This reduction will manifest in multifarious ways, such as “conferences, presenting a senior thesis, or President Quillen going to give a talk” needing to take place virtually. 

Currently, Davidson’s only choice is to buy and use carbon credits to meet their climate reduction goal, but Fouché is still working to drastically reduce air travel. Those who will be directly affected by this change, Fouché said, “seem really supportive for now, [but] it may be harder when a certain person is told, ‘well you can’t take that flight.’” Members of staff will have to begin “attending conferences virtually” and sports teams will have to take less “convenient” flights to their game-day destinations, said Fouché. It will involve a heavy “self-sacrificing” element, according to Fouché as Davidson will have to change how it prioritizes flight choice from “cost and convenience” to looking at “the carbon metric.” 

The Climate Action Plan aims to “reduce [emissions] as much as is feasible and then offset [them].” Offsetting emissions essentially means that Davidson will be purchasing the equivalent volume of carbon credits to compensate for their air travel. Purchasing carbon credit means Davidson is allowed to emit a volume of greenhouse gases that corresponds to the number of credits bought. This is because the credit ensures that in some other way the carbon is being taken out of the atmosphere, such as by planting trees. However, this has been a hotly debated topic in the sphere of sustainability, as it leads to people not actually changing behaviours as people pay to make the problem of their emissions go away. Mainstream climate activisim proposed that society does not change as people merely pay more so their lifestyles can remain the same. 

The other main focus of the plan is electricity, Davidson’s biggest emitter. Davidson College purchases electricity from Duke Energy. Currently, the Sustainability office is engaging in state-level proceedings to put pressure on Duke Energy to move to a greener grid. However, Duke is not likely to move fast enough to reach the Climate Action plans goals in time. 

On top of engaging with Duke energy, Davidson College is partnering with Elon and Wake Forest Universities to make a virtual power purchase agreement. This new agreement increases renewable energy production and will feed it into the national electricity grid. Therefore, Fouché said Davidson “will not actually be getting those electrons,” but according to the way “carbon markets and accounting works, it is a credible source of renewable energy because we are ensuring through our contract additional new renewable energy is entering the grid wherever it is cited.” Thus, Davidson college will get “renewable energy credits” in the same way one could receive a carbon credit. Therefore, the campus’s electricity will not be powered by renewable energy, but renewable energy will be entering the grid elsewhere. 

“Some solar panels will [also] be put on campus,” according to Fouché, so that students can see the visible change. However, North Carolina receives on average 213 sunny days per year, begging the question why more funds are not placed toward creating an entirely renewable energy powered campus if money is available to buy carbon credits to offset campus emissions. 

Between 2008 and 2018 Davidson College’s net greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 9.66% (see graph on left). However, a 10% drop in under 10 years is not enough if COP26 is correct in deeming current conditions a cliamte crisis. According to Fouché this plan will “easily [enable] a 50% reduction” in emissions if the projects in the sustainability office are successfully enacted in the next five years. Yet the manner in which that reduction is taking place is not necessarily self-sustaining as a large proportion of the reduction will happen through offsetting of emissions and purchasing carbon credits. According to the Princeton Review, Davidson College does not rank in the top 50 greenest colleges.

Despite the importance of macro-level change, as Fouche stated, “to espouse institutional change people first have to look at their own actions to be authentic.”