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Climate Action Plan Draft Cover
2021 Climate Action Plan

In 2007, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Carolina) became a charter signatory of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. In 2009, Carolina published its first Climate Action Plan. In this first plan, Carolina pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050 and established 15 near-term strategies to reach this goal.

Over the past decade, Carolina has implemented 75% of the near-term strategies from the 2009 Climate Action Plan. These strategies, along with other actions, have resulted in a 40% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, despite a 27% increase in campus square footage and a 9% increase in the campus population.

In 2019, both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Federal Government issued reports emphasizing the need for immediate climate action and the potential consequences of not taking action. The responsibility of being a leader in climate action has never been greater for Carolina than it is now. The 2021 Climate Action Plan represents the first step of our renewed commitment to sustainability, together.

A static report released every 5-10 years is not the most effective way to plan for carbon neutrality. Because the technologies, ideas, and resources available to Carolina can change quickly, the Climate Action Plan should be able to as well. For these reasons, Carolina has created this web-based Climate Action Plan that can be updated as our progress and plans evolve.

2009 Climate Action Plan
Carolina’s 2009 Climate Action Plan contained 15 near-term strategies and several mid- to long-term strategies. The status and results of each strategy can be seen in the figure below.

2009 Climate Action Plan Strategies and Status
Strategy Status
Thin Client Computers
Description Utilize low-energy, longer lasting web-based computers for libraries and other applications.

Result: Over 100 thin-clients are currently in use. Replacements are expected to have similar or smaller electricity demands.

Duplex Printing
Description: Make double-sided printing the default for campus printers.

Result: Duplex printing is standard. Due to this, and more paperless processes, paper use fell 76% between 2009 and 2021.

Computer Standby
Description: Manage computer sleep and standby modes for campus computers.

Result: Established a standard policy that sets screens, hard drives, and standby times to save energy.

Commercial Mail
Description: Reduce the amount of junk mail or undeliverable mail sent to campus.

Result: In 2016, Carolina adopted a Waste-Free Mail Program to reduce junk and undeliverable mail.

Chiller Efficiency
Description: Three projects to replace or upgrade chillers to more efficient models.

Result: Many chiller efficiency projects have been completed. Emissions from chilled water operations fell 56% (‘09 to ‘21).

Heat-Recovery Chillers
Description: Capture heat from chiller condensing unit for HVAC use, rather than venting.

Result: Heat recovery chillers have been installed, assisting in the 59% decrease in chilled water emissions.

Behavioral Initiatives
Description: Outreach and training to encourage occupants in energy savings.

Result: Carolina continuously engages the community through several different outreach programs.

Energy Conservation Measures (ECMs)
Description: Improve energy efficiency in existing buildings using Energy Conservation Measures.

Result: Due to the completion of many energy efficiency projects, Carolina’s energy use intensity fell 37% since 2003.

Green Building
Description: Adhere to NC Senate Bill 668 energy efficiency requirements (30% below ASHRAE standards).

Result: Ongoing improvements in building energy efficiency and retrofit projects have decreased EUIs across campus.

Vehicle Fleet
Description: Increase fuel efficiency of campus fleet based on CAFÉ standards.

Result: Due to mileage reduction, use of efficient vehicles, and increased biofuel use, fleet emissions fell 30% (‘09 to ‘21).

Description: Extend composting to additional campus dining facilities and residence halls.

Result: By expanding to more food service sites, compost collection increased 62% from 2009 to 2019.

Landfill Gas
Description: Capture and combust landfill methane.

Result: System was installed in 2012. As of July 2021, the system had achieved ~330,000 MTCO2e in emission reductions.

Business Travel
Description: Improve teleconferencing facilities to decrease air travel.

Result: Teleconferencing facilities and technologies have improved, and air miles decreased 15% between 2009 and 2019. Air miles reduced significantly during the pandemic, as well.

Unknown Results
20% Coal Substitute
Description: Replace 20% of coal with torrefied wood.

Result: This strategy was adopted under certain assumptions about torrefied wood and wood pellet technologies that failed to materialize. Wood pellets were tested in 2010 and 2011. Carolina is currently researching other biofuels, electric boilers, and carbon capture technologies to lower emissions.

Commuter Travel
Description: Avoid parking construction and increase public transportation (light rail).

Result: This strategy hinged on the completion of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project which has been indefinitely suspended. More commuters drove to campus in 2019 than in 2009, but emissions remained flat due to commuters living closer to campus and using more efficient vehicles. A Bus Rapid Transit project is currently under development.



Since signing Second Nature’s Climate Commitment in 2007, Carolina has completed an exhaustive annual GHG inventory and reduced its GHG emissions by 40% despite significant campus growth. This decrease was achieved with emission reductions in every category except for refrigerants and commuting. The graph below illustrates Carolina’s emissions since 2007. For a detailed trend report, please visit our SIMAP Emissions Reporting page.

Since 2007, Carolina’s largest GHG emission reductions have come from:

  • Energy Efficiency – Despite a 27% increase in square footage and a 9% increase in population since 2007:
    • Campus steam use per square foot has fallen by 36%.
    • Campus electricity consumption per square foot has fallen by 23%.
  • Stationary Combustion – Carolina reduced its coal use at the cogeneration plant by 54% since 2007.
  • Purchased Electricity – Due to efficiency projects and a cleaner grid, emissions have fallen 49% since 2007.

In the 2009 Climate Action Plan, a business-as-usual scenario was modeled to predict future emissions with no action. With predicted increases in campus and population sizes, this scenario forecasted emissions rising to almost 800,000 MTCO2e by 2020 and over 900,000 MTCO2e by 2050. However, due to the actions described above and COVID-19 pandemic-related disruptions to campus use, Carolina’s actual 2021 emissions were 54% lower than predicted, and nearly 2.5 million metric tons of CO2e emissions have been avoided since 2010. The graph below illustrates avoided emissions.

Line graph displaying UNC-Chapel Hill's GHG Emissions as compared to business as usual


Because of the urgent and immediate need for climate action, Carolina has set new, more ambitious greenhouse gas goals. These goals include:

  1. Carolina aspires to comply with Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80 which calls for a 40% statewide reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and Executive Order 246 which calls for a 50% statewide reduction by 2030.
  2. Carolina will strive to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 instead of 2050.

To reach these aggressive targets, the University needs the input and support of its campus community. Carolina is committed to transparency in our progress, successes, and limitations. By challenging circumstances that may preclude projects or change priorities, Carolina will maintain openness as progress towards these goals continues. The graph below illustrates progress made since 2007 as well as our more ambitious targets for achieving carbon neutrality.

The Path to 2040

To meet the goals listed above, Carolina must take many actions over the next 20 years. Some actions have been identified, and many more are yet to be realized. The sections below detail Carolina’s project selection criteria and strategies being considered over the next ~5 years.

Project Prioritization

To utilize Carolina’s resources as efficiently as possible, all potential strategies and initiatives are evaluated based on the following criteria. These criteria are not weighted and considerations of current budgets, needs, and priorities will factor into final decisions.

Lowers Greenhouse Gas Emissions
While projects of all sizes will be considered, Carolina will prioritize projects that have the potential for large greenhouse gas reductions. As these projects are completed or ruled out, smaller projects will be elevated.
Projects with environmental, social, and equity benefits will be prioritized.
Technically Feasible
Regardless of the impact and benefits, projects must be technically feasible to be considered. While Carolina strives to be innovative in its approach, technologies must be at least semi-proven.
Financially Feasible
Carolina seeks to meet carbon neutrality in the most cost-effective way. The net present value of each project is compared to the emission reduction potential to get a NPV/MTCO2e figure. This figure is used to compare the financial viability of each project. Projects with positive net present values will be prioritized. The capital cost (relative to the emission reduction) will also be considered.
Practically Feasible
A project’s practical feasibility is determined by factors such as climate, geography, infrastructure, etc.
It is important to get the campus community excited about efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Projects that are highly visible and draw attention to the effort are more attractive.
Living Learning Lab Impact
Due to Carolina’s mission as an institution of higher learning, projects that allow students, faculty, and staff to explore, research, and learn are prioritized.


Carolina has identified 23 strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These strategies could reduce emissions by 79% compared to the 2007 baseline. The diagram below shows the high-level strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Projected GHG Emissions Graph

Line Graph displaying projected Net GHG Emission Reductions by 2040 as compared to Business as Usual

Energy Strategies

Energy Efficiency

Due to the size of campus, the amount of intensive research being conducted, and the steam needs of labs and UNC Hospitals, Carolina uses a lot of energy every year. Some of this energy comes from onsite sources such as the cogeneration facility, and some is purchased from Duke Energy. While both Carolina and Duke Energy are working to lower the greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy production, much of the energy used still comes from fossil fuels and releases greenhouse gases. Each year, the energy used in buildings on campus directly and indirectly contributes to roughly 70-75% of Carolina’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Reducing emissions from campus energy use can be done in two general ways: reducing energy use and using cleaner energy. The table below describes the strategies for both using less energy and utilizing renewable and clean energy sources.

Reducing energy use on campus is the first step to lowering energy-related emissions. By reducing energy use in buildings, Carolina lowers the associated greenhouse gas emissions while creating financial savings and possibly improving occupant comfort.

Carolina’s Energy Management team constantly works to increase the energy efficiency of existing buildings and new builds. Thanks to these efforts, Carolina’s energy use intensity, the energy used per square foot, has fallen 37% since FY2003.

Continue Energy Conservation Measures Program
Continue Building Optimization Program
Update Design Guidelines

Stationary Combustion

Not only does Carolina have a high demand for steam, the supply must be extremely reliable to keep the hospital running and maintain sensitive research. The repercussions of campus energy outages can be immense, including loss of life or lifesaving research. To meet the campus steam demand, and maintain extremely high levels of reliability and resilience, Carolina needs to have multiple fuel options and be able to store fuel on site. Unfortunately, this means that Carolina currently uses fossil fuels to create steam.

Carolina is working to move the cogeneration facility away from coal as quickly as is technically and financially feasible. Currently, the University has increased natural gas use. While transitioning to natural gas is significantly lowering campus emissions, Carolina is still researching better long-term solutions. Until an alternative fuel source is found to minimize emissions while also generating the necessary steam output, Carolina utilizes the following strategies to reduce emissions in the short term while planning for a long-term sustainable solution.

Eliminate Coal Use
Explore Next Generation Fuels
Explore Carbon Capture

Purchased Electricity

Carolina’s cogeneration facility produces roughly 15-20% of the University’s annual electricity use. The remaining electricity is purchased from Duke Energy and typically accounts for 20-25% of Carolina’s annual GHG emissions. Other than energy efficiency, mentioned above, there are three ways Carolina can continue to reduce purchased electricity emissions: onsite renewable generation, renewable energy purchases, and Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) purchasing.

Increase On-Campus Renewable Energy
Procure Renewable Energy
Purchase Renewable Energy Certificates

Transportation Strategies


Commuting is one of the few upward-trending emission categories, with the exception of 2020 and 2021. This increase is largely driven by the fact that more employees and students are driving alone to campus rather than using more efficient forms of transportation. Reducing commuting emissions relies heavily on influencing individuals to make sustainable commuting decisions.

Encourage and aid Chapel Hill Transit (CHT) in transition to Electric Buses
Increase use of the Commuter Alternative Program
Study Parking Pass Structure
Expand Electric Vehicle Charging

Air Travel

Air travel, both domestic and international, is a large part of being a global research university. Carolina’s faculty, staff, and students fly over 80 million miles every year for research, conferences, and studies. While this travel is often essential in making Carolina a leader in research, it is normally responsible for 10% of Carolina’s GHG emissions.

Explore Green Air Travel Program
Explore voluntary or mandatory air travel carbon offsets


Carolina’s fleet, which consists of around 900 vehicles, produced roughly half a percent of Carolina’s total emissions in 2021. Since 2007, fleet emissions fell 23%, primarily due to decreased fuel consumption and increased use of alternative fuels B20 and E85. The University is currently pursuing the strategies below to further reduce emissions.

Optimize Vehicle Choice
Increase Use of Biofuels
Expand Use of Vehicle Telematics

Education and Research Strategies

As an institution of higher learning, simply reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not good enough. Carolina has a responsibility to educate and engage its community members to ensure that climate action occurs both on and off campus. With almost 30,000 students, and over 12,000 employees, this is a huge task, and equally large opportunity. Meeting Carolina’s sustainability goals will be much easier and impactful with full campus engagement.

Create a peer-to-peer sustainability program
Increase engagement in New Student Orientation, Week of Welcome, and throughout the year.
Launch Green Office certification program

Other Strategies

Greenhouse gases are sometimes used as part of operations including in switchgear and as refrigerants. In the case of switchgear, newer technology is available that doesn’t require the use of greenhouse gases for insulation. For refrigerants, climate-friendly alternatives may be available depending on the equipment being used. Carolina will continue to substitute when feasible.

Replace SF6 switches with solid-state dielectric switches
Replace refrigerants with climate-friendly alternatives

Progress Tracking

As progress is made towards our carbon neutrality goal, we will continue to update the contents of the plan. For detailed climate action progress, see the table below.

Emission Impact Estimated Cost Time Horizon
High: >10% of total emissions Low: <$100,000 Short Term: <5 years
Medium: 1 to 10% of total emissions Medium: $100,000 to $1,000,000 Mid Term: 5 to 10 years
Low: <1% of total emissions High: >$1,000,000 Long Term: >10 years

Sustainable Together

The challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to reach carbon neutrality and meet our climate goals requires collaboration across all levels of Carolina. With ambitious plans for climate action also comes the need for funding. While most of the strategies and ideas outlined in this Climate Action Plan rely on decisions made at the institutional level, individual behaviors adopted by the Carolina community will be the key to realizing our ambitions.

As opportunities to connect and collaborate on individual behavior change continue to develop, Sustainable Carolina will facilitate these efforts. For ideas on the actions you can take to reduce emissions and create a more sustainable campus, please visit the “What Can I Do?” web page. This web page also includes a feedback form where you can send your idea for emissions reduction strategies to us.

By learning about the quantified emissions impacts of everyday choices, communicating greenhouse gas messaging to peers, and staying aware of new tools that shrink greenhouse gas footprints, the Carolina community moves toward our new ambitious climate goals together.

Feedback and Updates

This Climate Action Plan is a living document. We originally released it in draft form to start the discussion with all members of our community in ways we can improve it. A modified stakeholder engagement strategy was used due to pandemic-related challenges. This strategy included a feedback form to capture ideas, suggestions, questions, and concerns that closed on June 15, 2021. Since many individuals had similar questions, we grouped the feedback by themes and are sharing it in the table below.

Questions and Answers
Q: How has the pandemic affected emissions on campus?
A: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an ongoing set of operational challenges that will have lasting impacts on how we function as an institution and as individuals. The emissions impacts of adjusted operations such as telework are still being analyzed as data is collected. Fewer people on campus will likely lower building energy use, waste production, and emissions from commuting.
Q: How will the University support more electric vehicles on campus?
A: UNC-Chapel Hill is exploring ways to increase electric vehicle adoption among campus users and the university-operated fleet. This effort includes installing more electric charging stations around campus. Additionally, as the development of electric vehicles continues and more types become available on the market, the feasibility of replacing existing vehicles at the end of their useful life will be considered. UNC’s Transportation and Parking is actively pursuing grants for charging stations.
Q: How can the University support Chapel Hill Transit in reducing emissions?
A: While UNC-Chapel Hill does not operate the Chapel Hill Transit system, it does provide $7 million annually for its operation. Three electric buses are currently in operation, one of which was paid for by the student-run Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee (RESPC).
Q: How will carbon offsets be leveraged for carbon neutrality?
A: Carbon offsets will be considered to lessen the impact of irremovable emissions. These include air travel for study abroad programs, research needs, and athletic events as well as commuting. The current strategy is to reduce emissions as much as possible, then offset remaining emissions.
Q: Can the University install an anaerobic digester to transform food waste into fuel?
A: UNC considered installing an anaerobic digester to create fuel from food waste. This system could eliminate some methane emissions for the university. The technology was determined to be infeasible based on cost, size constraints, and logistics.
Q: Why aren't affordable housing efforts outlined in the plan since shortened commutes create emissions benefits?
A: While this is a timely concern, the ability to deliver nearby, affordable housing is not within the scope of UNC operations. Affordable housing initiatives necessitate the involvement and funding from multiple stakeholders primarily local municipalities and developers.
Q: Does UNC offer incentives for zero-emission commuting?
A: The existing Commuter Alternatives Program at UNC serves as an ongoing incentive for lowering commuting emissions. Further information can be found here.
Q: Can UNC implement vendor selection criteria to encourage sustainable purchases?
A: Many sustainable purchasing guidelines are currently implemented within the procurement systems at UNC. An example includes the prioritization of recycled paper suppliers which contributes to decreased emissions resulting from paper purchases.
Q: How will UNC leverage institutional research to reduce emissions?
A: A framework for expanding sustainability research is outlined as an objective within the CAP.
Q: How is Carolina Dining Services (CDS) supporting individuals who want more sustainable food options?
A: In collaboration with the student group Vegans for Peace, CDS developed a menu with a wide variety of vegan-friendly proteins, vegan pizza with Daiya cheese, and Meat”Less” Mondays during which 15% less meat is offered.
Q: Is the University able to purchase electricity sourced from renewables?
A: Current North Carolina regulations prohibit a customer from purchasing electricity from unregulated third-party providers, such as those commonly associated with solar installations of various scales. Not being able to enter a power purchase agreement with third parties poses a barrier to obtaining competitively-priced renewable energy in accordance with our charter to deliver services to the public of North Carolina at the lowest cost to taxpayers. The policy landscape is ever-evolving, and we are committed to continuously monitoring and evaluating our options. A current policy option that is explored in the CAP is the Green Source Advantage program offered by Duke Energy, which is intended to allow specific customers in North Carolina the ability to purchase renewably-generated electricity through Duke Energy directly. This strategy is being actively investigated, and many schools in the UNC system are assessing the cost and contractual terms. For local installations, UNC-Chapel Hill currently has a renewable energy project in progress at the former Horace Williams Airport, a combination of a solar array with a storage battery that will be used primarily for research and education. Solar arrays are already in place atop the Student Union and the North Carolina Botanical Garden. The feasibility of expanding rooftop solar installations on campus has been assessed by Sustainable Carolina. We found that maximizing rooftop solar, while acknowledging constraints such as structural and historical limitations, could satisfy up to 5% of campus electric demand.
Q: Why does the cogeneration plant combust fossil fuels?
A: UNC-Chapel Hill uses steam to sterilize medical instruments, generate electricity, heat buildings, and control humidity. Since steam is a local product and cannot be purchased from a utility the way that electricity can, UNC utilizes boilers to generate steam and a district energy system to distribute the steam to campus customers. The boilers currently operate with a mix of natural gas and coal with a higher percentage of natural gas each year in an effort to use less coal. Since natural gas emits fewer GHGs than coal, natural gas is viewed as a short-term solution. There is a continuous effort to research and test alternative fuels that provide the resilience required to operate a large campus and multiple hospitals. Any solution needs to meet the feasibility criteria detailed in the Climate Action Plan.
Q: Why doesn't the plan include measures to reduce water use or waste production?
A: Efforts pertaining to water, waste, and other sustainability issues are ongoing even though these topics are not necessarily mentioned in this plan. They are part of the broader strategy-forming process within Sustainable Carolina and the Carolina Sustainability Council. To read our Water Plan, please navigate to the Water Plan page.


Developing this Climate Action Plan required a campus-wide collaboration. Thank you for all of the help in developing this. The following groups provided data or insights that helped form this plan: Carolina Dining Services, Energy Management, Energy Services & Sustainability, Fleet Services, Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling, Study Abroad, The Town of Chapel Hill, Transportation and Parking, and Travel Services.