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Understanding Northwestern’s Carbon Footprint

Northwestern is committed to minimizing the University’ environmental footprint, and understanding our current impact is the first step in this process. This is why Northwestern recently completed its first comprehensive greenhouse gas emissions inventory. sustainNU will leverage the results to help identify emission reduction opportunities and to measure progress toward our objective of becoming net zero by 2050.

Greenhouse gas emissions are divided into three categories, or scopes, based on the sources of the emissions.

  • Scope 1 includes direct emissions from sources that are owned or controlled by Northwestern. For example, this scope includes emissions from the combustion of natural gas used for heating.
  • Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from sources that are generated upstream from the organization. This includes emissions from the consumption of purchased electricity.
  • Scope 3 includes sources that are not owned or directly controlled by Northwestern but are related to Northwestern activities. This includes emissions produced by Northwestern commuters and companies that transport materials to campus. It also includes emissions from travel for University activities, such as flights to conferences and study abroad travel, as well as the institution’s waste management practices.

Collecting the information to quantify the University’s greenhouse gas emissions was truly a campus-wide effort. This data collection process took several months and involved more than 15 different University departments. For example, the Study Abroad Office provided airline mileage, Procurement and Payment Services offered information on goods shipped to campus, the Transportation and Parking Office provided gas usage by campus shuttles. Thanks to these many contributors, it was possible to gather the data needed to complete the emissions inventory.

For the next steps in the process, Northwestern worked with Sightlines, a consulting group that helped with data analysis and reporting. They produced a report that quantifies emissions and sets a baseline for measuring progress toward emission reduction goals.

The report found that 35 percent of Northwestern’s emissions come from Scope 1 sources and that 98 percent of the emissions within this category were from natural gas consumption. Purchased electricity consumption in buildings made up all of the emissions in Scope 2, accounting for 43 percent of the University’s total emissions. Scope 3 made up 22 percent of total emissions, with travel accounting for more than half of the emissions within this category.

The report covered emissions from 2012 through 2016 and found that net emissions have gone down by 13 percent during that time. Reductions resulted from a combination of energy efficiency initiatives on campus and the purchase of renewable energy certificates, which offset emissions from electricity consumption.

The University will utilize results of the greenhouse gas emissions inventory to create a strategic approach to reducing emissions. Ongoing measurement will make it possible to evaluate the impact of our campus community efforts and adjust our strategies as needed until we reach our goal of zero net emissions by 2050. The 2016 Greenhouse Gas Emissions inventory can be accessed here.