Temple emissions fell during COVID-19 pandemic closures

An annual report shows reduced emissions and electricity use during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Temple University’s Office of Sustainability released their Annual Sustainability Report in February. | COLLEEN CLAGGETT / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Updated on 4/13 at 8:46 p.m.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Temple University’s Main Campus last spring, it left empty classrooms, clear roadways and an atmosphere benefitting from fewer greenhouse gases.

The 2019-20 Sustainability Annual Report, which summarizes Temple’s greenhouse gas emissions and progress made toward the goals in the university’s 2019 Climate Action Plan, shows emissions decreased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic so far. In sum, Temple’s emissions dropped 18 percent in the 2019-20 fiscal year compared to the previous one, a 36 percent reduction from the 2006-07 year, which Temple uses as a baseline, according to the report. 

Temple’s biggest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 was a 39 percent decrease from commuting, university-financed travel and solid waste, according to the report.

Next year’s report will likely find emissions closer to the university’s pre-pandemic levels, as some students returned to campus in the 2020-2021 school year, said Rebecca Collins, director of sustainability. 

Temple closed Main Campus in March 2020 due to safety concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, The Temple News reported. The university reopened for a mix of in-person and online classes during the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters.  

Approximately 4,500 students took in-person classes at Temple’s domestic campuses during the fall semester, and approximately 13 percent of spring semester classes are in-person, The Temple News reported

But the pandemic allowed Temple to reevaluate the efficiency of its facilities and assess opportunities for improving sustainability, Collins said, an important step as the university works toward carbon neutrality by 2050.

“We’ll continue to kind of question or we’ll think about, you know, is this thing that we did sustainable moving forward,” Collins said.

Greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, contribute to global warming by trapping heat in the atmosphere and increasing air pollution levels, which can cause respiratory illnesses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Global carbon dioxide emissions decreased approximately 17 percent in April 2020 as quarantine measures meant people spent more time at home, according to the World Meteorological Association. By June 2020, emissions increased again to be approximately five percent less than pre-pandemic levels. 

Temple’s Main Campus closed and classes moved to a virtual format on March 16, 2020. The university scaled back building energy use, which accounts for more than 70 percent of Temple’s greenhouse gas emissions, by reducing indoor temperatures and only using safety lights, Collins said.

The university reopened for a limited number of in-person summer classes on June 23, 2020. During the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters, buildings have operated at nearly full capacity to accommodate students taking in-person classes, despite fewer total students and faculty on campus, Collins said. 

Single-occupancy vehicles parked on campus decreased by 44 percent in 2020, as virtual classes during the pandemic significantly reduced the number of students commuting to campus, according to the report.

Collins anticipates next year’s report may show increased natural gas and energy use in buildings as they are fully operating again for in-person classes, but transportation emissions will remain lower because of fewer students commuting, Collins said. Total emissions may be lower than in pre-pandemic years but higher than the previous fiscal year. 

“There are some classes that are in person, and even though we don’t have the same number of students, we’re still operating the building to support the students that are here,” Collins said.

Decreased emissions during the COVID-19 pandemic are not long-term climate progress, but the pandemic could increase virtual platform use, which would continue to reduce travel-related emissions, said Melissa Gilbert, chair of the geography and urban studies department and director of Temple’s Center for Sustainable Communities. 

While changes to individual behavior, like driving and traveling less, reduced emissions during the pandemic, it is important to focus on broad structural changes to policy and the economy that will create long-term sustainability, Gilbert added.

“We need to come up with, you know, either new technologies or new policies that will allow us to, you know, continue, I think, on the trend, which was before COVID, you know, you could see that Temple had been reducing its carbon emissions over time,” Gilbert said.

To reduce emissions from campus buildings, the university is looking to use renewable energy and replace old heating sources with programmable thermostats and less energy-efficient lighting with more efficient options, The Temple News reported.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact impeded some university initiatives, like investing in renewable energy sources, according to the report. 

The market prices for solar panels and renewable energy investments are still significantly higher than before the pandemic, Collins said. The university has not changed its goal to develop at least 100 kilowatts of renewable energy systems by 2022 but will wait until prices fall again to sign a long-term energy contract. 

Temple met several benchmarks within the past fiscal year, including increasing core recycling, which diverts waste from landfills, by 30 percent by 2020 and increasing the number of students who travel to campus on public transit and bicycles to 75 percent, which they had set to reach by 2025, according to the report.

Temple reduced its diversion of waste from landfills by 35 percent, which is lower than their goal of 50 percent reduction, according to the report. As waste decomposes in landfills, it releases greenhouse gases, including large concentrations of methane, which traps heat 28 to 36 times more than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA.

Emissions from Temple’s fleet vehicles have increased four percent since 2006, but 16 percent of fleet vehicles used alternative fuel sources in 2020, progressing toward Temple’s goal to alternatively fuel 50 percent of fleet vehicles by 2030, according to the report.

Campus operations report to the Office of Sustainability about waste management, disposal of surplus equipment and purchasing fuel sources for fleet vehicles, to track their environmental impact, said Mark Gottlieb, senior associate director of operations and logistics. 

“We’re trying to do our part in a small way but in a positive way,” Gottlieb added. “As a university, we should always be leading by example and going for new ideas that will help everybody.”

Temple is working to integrate sustainability into campus life by hosting student-oriented initiatives like bike repair clinics and compost collection services and adding 10 new sustainability courses by 2022, which they surpassed by two courses this past year, according to the report.

Gilbert is glad to see sustainability courses offered in other departments, as sustainability challenges require interdisciplinary perspectives to create effective solutions, she said.

“We need to be able to educate students and educate policymakers, we need to do research that’s very solutions-oriented and we need to show that large institutions like Temple can play an important role in reducing carbon, or our carbon imprint, and to do our part for the city,” Gilbert said.

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