The MSU Office of Sustainability announced goals for the university to reach carbon neutrality by 2040 and zero waste by 2035, and achieve a Platinum rating under the Sustainability Tracking, Rating and Assessment System (STARS) by 2035 during the University Council meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 1.

The goals are established under the new campus Sustainability Framework, which was developed and will be monitored by the Office of Sustainability and an apparatus of task forces, including the Campus Stewardship Consortium (CSC), newly-established Carbon Neutrality Task Force and the Campus Sustainability Advisory Council (CSAC). CSAC advises President Cruzado on sustainability efforts at the university and will provide oversight for the groups working toward the goals of the framework. 

“This sustainability framework reflects years of work by a group of highly engaged students… faculty and staff,” Julia Haggerty, co-director of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems and chair of CSAC, said.  

Carbon neutrality means the amount of carbon dioxide emissions produced by MSU will be equal to the amount of carbon dioxide sequestered. “We do that by reducing emissions overall and then identifying carbon sinks,” Kristin Blackler, director of the Office of Sustainability, said. Emissions data are monitored by the office in three categories known as scopes, with scope one emissions being produced physically on campus, scope two emissions being produced through utility use and scope three emissions including air travel, car travel and any other activity not directly connected to campus. 

To reduce emissions in the scope one category and eventually the scope two category, the Office of Sustainability is hoping to convert MSU’s natural gas powered heating plant to an electric heating plant, which would use electricity purchased from the university’s utility provider NorthWestern Energy. Paul Edlund, program manager of the Office of Sustainability, said in an interview the week after the council meeting that roughly 20% of electricity from NorthWestern is currently produced by natural gas and 40% through coal. “Hopefully, those numbers will continue to decrease over time,” Edlund said.

A composting program established in 2018 through a partnership with the City of Bozeman is MSU’s only current carbon sink. The products of composting, when applied to soil, increase microbial activity that stores carbon through photosynthesis. Food waste from the university is transported to the city composting facility, diverting waste from landfills in addition to enabling removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the first year of the partnership 550,000 pounds of food were diverted from landfills, according to Blackler. “These little things with the right infrastructure and the right attention just turn into really big solutions,” Blackler said. 

According to Edlund, the composting program has removed roughly 70 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year. However, the 70-ton annual removal rate is still “factors away” from the amount needed to reach the 2040 neutrality goal, Edlund said, so other methods of carbon removal will be needed. The university will likely need to purchase carbon offsets, which are a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere used to account for emissions on campus. Edlund noted there are questions about the legitimacy of some carbon offsets, as they can be difficult to verify or enforce. He said a good local opportunity for carbon offsets is the Montana Grasslands Carbon Initiative, which pays Montana farmers and ranchers to use regenerative agriculture techniques that bolster the ability of soil to store carbon.  

“We’re hopeful that as technology progresses, we do not have to rely on carbon offsets,” Edlund said.

The framework’s zero waste goal matches standards from the Zero Waste International Alliance, which specifies that 90% of waste must be diverted from landfills. The remaining 10% of waste can be sent to an incinerator for no more than 10 years after initial data is sent for certification. Zero Waste certified organizations are required to reduce the amount of waste sent to incinerators each year during that 10 year time frame under the alliance criteria. 

In 2019, MSU was operating at a waste diversion rate of 33%, an increase from 2% in 2009. 

STARS, which Blackler described as “the gold standard in sustainability metrics for higher ed,” is a program created by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). Universities submit sustainability data every three years through the STARS online reporting tool and receive points for sustainability efforts in academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration. For MSU to receive a Platinum rating, it must earn 85% of available points. 

In 2019, MSU received a score of 57.84%, earning a Silver STARS rating through 2022. Blackler said the university is aiming for a Gold rating — a score of at least 65% — with its 2022 report, which will be submitted in February, before ultimately reaching the Platinum score of 85% or higher.

In a Nov. 10 seminar hosted by the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, Blackler noted that the targets of the framework could also be reached sooner than 2040 and 2035. At the University Council meeting, Faculty Senate Chair Bradford Watson, a member of CSAC, expressed support for this more ambitious timeline. 

“One piece here, that Kristin I’ve heard you say numerous times about these goals, is that there is an asterisk of ‘or sooner’,” Watson said. “To me I think from a faculty standpoint, that’s a critical piece that these are good goals but we would support and offer our support in any way that we can help to accelerate those because these are such critical issues.”

“We love to put an asterisk at the end of 2040 because this deserves to happen as quickly as it can to meet the urgency of climate change,” Edlund said. “That’s really the back end of when we think this is possible.”

The Sustainability Framework was originally developed by CSAC as a sustainability plan, the draft of which included broken-down steps on reaching the goals outlined in the framework. According to minutes from CSAC’s Sept. 16 meeting, feedback from President Cruzado for the plan to include less detail and focus more on the larger goals led to the creation of the framework.

Switching from the plan to the framework frustrated some faculty members involved in sustainability efforts on campus. In a post on his webpage, electrical and computer engineering professor Rob Maher, Ph.D, wrote the framework falls short of being a comprehensive sustainability plan, a goal established in the university’s strategic plan. Paul LaChapelle, Ph.D, a political science professor, said the decision to use the framework rather than the plan was alarming, and that the university should be providing “rich detail” about sustainability plans. 

Michael Becker, a spokesperson for the university, said the Sustainability Framework conveys the university’s new targets in a simpler format, which allows the goals to be understood more easily and for more people to engage behind them. He said the framework allows the university to be more adaptable in reaching the sustainability targets as technology and practices advance in the future, and that the data collected by the Office of Sustainability for STARS reporting will still follow the standards detailed by AASHE.

An updated version of the university’s campus climate action plan focused on the next three to five years is anticipated in March, Blackler said in the University Council meeting, and the Office of Sustainability will be hosting MSU’s first ever sustainability summit on April 19. The office will use the summit to report metrics and action on sustainability and get feedback from the public for moving forward.

“There’s a difference between a grassroots movement and a top-down endorsement, and what’s happening right now is they’re meeting,” Edlund said.