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Duke sets ambitious climate neutrality goals

Duke University could be climate neutral — net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases — by 2024 if it follows the plan it announced earlier this week.

Universities nationwide have similar plans for reducing emissions, but most have set less ambitious goals. A key reason is a lack of funding for implementing infrastructure changes — something UNC-Chapel Hill officials said has been an obstacle.

The high costs of achieving that goal could delay plans at Duke, said Tavey McDaniel, director of the Duke sustainability office, in an e-mail.

Impending climate legislation, the struggling economy and the local transportation infrastructure could also impede progress, McDaniel said.

The idea is that saving energy will save money in the long run. But the money needed right now will exceed cost savings for several years, said Cindy Shea, director of the Sustainability Office at UNC.

Duke has already invested $20 million to switch some campus operations over to natural gas, which could cut coal consumption by 70 percent.

The estimated cost for the overall plan is $100 million over the course of 40 years. Duke will use external funding to help financing the project, McDaniel said.

Many schools focus on carbon neutrality instead, which only entails net zero emission of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide, released when coal is burned, is the most widespread greenhouse gas.

The recently approved UNC-system sustainability policy, which all campuses are supposed to eventually comply with, calls for carbon neutrality by 2050 and sets no definite goal for climate neutrality.

Under former Chancellor James Moseser, UNC-Chapel Hill committed to climate neutrality by 2050.

A major step toward achieving that goal, and one that has received significant attention recently, is changing the functioning of UNC’s Cogeneration Facility, which produces much of the campus’s energy and runs partially on natural gas and partially on coal.

Duke plans to reduce its emissions by making buildings more energy efficient, ending its coal consumption entirely and exploring renewable energy options such as biomass and solar energy.

It also will reopen an old energy plant that has been converted to run entirely on natural gas, McDaniel said, and the school will pay farmers in North Carolina to capture methane released from hog farming.

Part of Duke’s plan is to reduce the private use of cars on campus.

That will be a major challenge because it entails changing lifestyle habits, said Niles Barns, projects coordinator of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

But Barns said the plan is feasible.

“Duke’s plan is certainly an ambitious goal that challenges energy uses and has an aggressive timeline. However, their goal is achievable,” Barns said.

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