Last Friday in my graduate seminar class titled “Carbon Neutrality: Fact or Fiction?” the real-world came to our class in the form of a businessman/entrepreneur, and the director of policy and legislative affairs for the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island. They came to discuss the semestre-long project upon which our class will be embarking. The idea is that we will divide up into three teams of three, and each team will be assigned to work for a client, working on the question of whether or not they can become “carbon neutral,” what that would mean, and if they should pursue that course or simply one of “reduced emissions.”
The three clients are:
1)The Ecological Society of America, which has 8,000 members, has asked the class to help the society tackle the question of carbon neutrality for its organization, primarily from the standpoint of how to deal with the society’s annual conference, to which many people fly, resulting in large amounts of emissions. The annual conference is an important source of revenue for them, so the idea is to find a way of allowing for the conference in a way that reduces emissions. Some possibilities include
a)looking at where the conference is held relative to the geographical distribution of attendees;
b)considering the purchase of carbon offsets or Renewable Energy Credits (RECS)
c)providing free Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) for attendees of the conference
d)including the cost of offsets or RECs in the fee for attending.
2)The Miller Dowel Company, founded by a Brown alum, has developed a type of wooden dowel that they claim can dramatically increase the life span of wooden pallets all over the world and can also make it easier for the pallets to be recycled at the end of their useful lives. Worldwide there are over two billion pallets, and one of the main reasons for the harvest of timber in the Northeast is for wood for pallets. So we’re looking at, potentially, an important environmental savings. The company hopes to prevent 100 million trees a year from being cut down. Our job is to analyze the claims of the company, look at ways that the company can improve the environmental performance of their product, and make cost-benefit analyses based on our findings. The question becomes really involved when you start to consider things such as where the wood for the dowel and pallet comes from, how the forest is managed, how efficient of inefficient the manufacturing process is, what type of glue is used to secure the dowel, where the manufacturing takes place, etc.
The president of the company flew down from Chicago just to speak with us. He explained that traditional pallets use nails to hold them together; the nails often pop out, resulting in damage to merchandise, injuries to workers and a very short life span for the pallets. The nails are also very hard to pull out entirely, so that when it is time to discard the pallet it usually ends up in a landfill because wood with even a few nails in it can’t be recycled easily (he told us that over six billion board feet of wood end up in landfills each year: that’s a LOT). His design uses a wooden dowel to hold the pallet together. The resulting pallet has several advantages:
a)it is 20 pounds lighter because nails require a thicker wood or else it would split. Lighter weight means that less energy needs to be used to transport packages sitting on the pallets.
b)the dowels simply do not come out of the joint and create a much stronger bond, and independent testing has shown that this design can last 13 times longer than a traditional pallet, meaning that less trees need to be cut down to make new pallets.
c)when it is time to recycle the pallet, that can be done so with relative ease due to the lack of nails; therefore the wood can be chipped and used for mulch, or recycled in any number of ways.
What was most interesting about his presentation was the real-life insight it gave us into how a businessman who is trying to make money and be green at the same time thinks. The group that works with him will get to delve deeply into the issues of how one tries to get any business off the ground in general, as well as the specific challenges faced when trying to be green (namely that there is usually a higher up-front cost, but that cost is usually negated when averaged out over the longer life-cycle of the product). It will be really interesting to sit down and tear his arguments apart, looking for flaws and seeing what holds up. The big question is: will his design really result in a reduction in carbon emissions? How much? In the big picture is this potential reduction significant or not? How can this product be improved?
3)Gary Bliss, the director of policy and legislative affairs for the mayor of Providence, came to speak to us about some of the initiatives Providence has undertaken to go green. He began by telling us an interesting story. Around the time An Inconvenient Truth first came out he, the mayor and several members of city hall went to see the documentary. When the movie ended the mayor turned to Gary and said “we have to do something about this. Figure it out!” The mayor then proceeded to get into a car and head off to other meetings, leaving Mr. Bliss with the task of figuring out what to do. In essence, that will be our job: to look at what Providence has done, is doing and plans to do, and then to make suggestions for where, in the most cost-effective manner, in can make the most striking reductions in carbon emissions. Of all the projects, this one has the most latitude. We are free to focus on one thing, such as transportation, or do a more general review of all facets of the city. Next week a professor at Johnson and Wales University will publish an inventory of all of the city’s carbon emissions, and that will most likely serve as our starting point for the analysis. Another important starting point will be Providence’s ambitious goal of getting 20% of the energy consumed by the city from renewable sources by 2010. Mr. Bliss pointed out that this metric does not take into account or even value conservation; in other words, it looks exclusively at the supply side without focusing on the demand side. So one thing we might do would be to make suggestions as to how best to improve the goal, perhaps by looking at what other cities have done and then adapting those plans to Providence. We can also look at building-codes; land-use; transportation; lighting; perhaps a congestion tax (cities such as London have adopted this; the way it works is that drivers who want to drive in certain parts of the city have to pay to do so, and that money can be re-invested in renewable energy or conservation measures; click here for more information)
The most interesting part about both presentations was the way in which we got to see how things take place in the real-world. It is one thing to discuss how something should be done on paper, with unlimited resources, money and political will, but it is another thing entirely to work within the constraints of a business or a city. Mr. Bliss, for instance, was very open with us regarding the willingness, or lack thereof, of several groups within the city to take on the issue of carbon emissions. One of our challenges will be to frame our arguments in such a way that they convince people that this is a worthwhile issue to take on. For instance, we could argue that some sort of price on carbon is inevitable, and by taking action early, Providence would place itself at an advantage compared to other cities that do not act. (The mayor of Providence already has signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which commits Providence to striving to meet or beat the requirement of the Kyoto Protocal) Furthermore, Providence could re-cast itself as a green city, thereby increasing tourism and investment in the city. The most exciting aspect of all the projects is that our recommendations are going to be taken very seriously; this is not merely an intellectual exercise. Our ideas will be considered and valued, and taken into account when real decisions are made. All of the projects look interesting to me, but I think I’m going to go for the Providence project because it gives me the most freedom to explore many different facets of the same question.
So the real-world came to class on Friday. Now the class has to figure out how to make the real-world better in a real way.
1)The Ecological Society of America
2)The Miller Dowel Company
3)The City of Providence
4)U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement
5)The Providence 2020 Plan (PDF)