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Aggressive climate action pledges from governments, businesses and institutions have increasingly taken the form of commitments to net carbon neutrality. Higher education institutions (HEIs) are uniquely positioned to innovate in this area, and over 800 U.S. colleges and universities have pledged to achieve net carbon neutrality. Eleven leading U.S. HEIs have already attained this status. Here, we examine their approaches to achieving net carbon neutrality, highlighting risks associated with treating emissions reduction approaches such as carbon offsets, renewable energy certificates, and bioenergy as best practice in isolation from broader policy frameworks. While pursuing net carbon neutrality has led to important institutional shifts toward sustainability, the mix of approaches used by HEIs is out of alignment with a broader U.S. decarbonization roadmap; in aggregate, these carbon neutral schools underutilize electrification and new zero-carbon electricity. We conclude by envisioning how HEIs can refocus climate mitigation efforts towards decarbonization (with net carbon neutrality as a possible milestone), with an emphasis on actions that will help shift policy and markets at larger scales.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.


Licensed to Smith College and distributed CC-BY-SA under the Smith College Faculty Open Access Policy.


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