I want to discuss my semestre-long graduate seminar project. Several weeks ago our class of nine divided into three groups of three, each assigned to a different project related to the broad theme of carbon neutrality. I was assigned to the Ecological Society of America (ESA) group. Our job is to look at the carbon emissions resulting from the ESA’s yearly operations, find ways to reduce those emissions and then suggest methods of offsetting the rest. We already know that the primary source of carbon emissions is the group’s annual conference, held in early August, to which about 4,000 people fly, drive or take the train.
The rest of the ESA’s operations are minimal in terms of CO2 emissions, thus we will be focusing on the conference itself for the bulk of our research. The question is, to what extent does the geographic location of the conference, relative to the distribution of attendees, affect the total emissions from the conference. Intuitively, we can say it’s likely that holding the conference in, say, Chicago, will result in less emissions than holding it in San Francisco.
Step by Step
Our first task is to run a GIS model to figure out the total miles the attendees will have to travel given 30 different options for host cities. Once we figure out the total mileage, we will import that number into an emissions calculator which takes into account radiative forcing and other factors unique to flying that increase emissions, and come up with a rough estimate of how much CO2 will be emitted depending on where the conference is held.
Our next step will be to suggest ways to offset those emissions. At present we have come up with several offsetting options: 1)purchasing Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) 2)purchasing offsets such as Native Energy or 3)investing in physical improvements in the host hotel. The last option is the one that I find most intriguing. Basically, the idea is that rather than pay some company to offset emissions by investing in fuel switching in Bolivia, why not pay to have an energy audit done of the host hotel, with an agreement that the hotel will make a certain investment in energy savings (i.e., new light bulbs, weatherizing, etc.) This is a model that has not yet been attempted, but which could prove very successful because it spurs change and has the potential to opening people’s eyes to how much money can be saved by going green.
Lastly, we will look at what sorts of behavioral changes the ESA can make to reduce its emissions as well as leverage its prestige as a scientific society to advocate for change. Some of the examples of behavioral changes are providing compostable plates and cups at their annual conference; including general green information to attendees of the conference; getting more involved in policy and advocacy as a group in general; and providing attendees with the option of not receiving a complimentary gift bag when they arrive at the conference
A Chance For Innovation
What I find most exciting about this project is the way it allows me to use my creativity in solving a problem. That is to say, I am not in any way constrained by what others have done, indeed, I am looking to do something quite new with the energy audit offset scheme. I am realizing that the key to being successful when advocating for change is to find ways of circumventing seemingly intractable problems, rather than muscling through them. In the case of offsetting, there is a lot of controversy about the industry and the concept. Some have compared offsetting to seeking indulges in the Middle Ages, while others have pointed out that offsetting takes place in an unregulated market, meaning that results can be hard to quantify and prove.
That said, there are still good quality offsets; the point is that one way to deal with the offsetting problem is to go in an entirely different direction. By putting up the money for a hotel to have an energy audit done, the ESA is ensuring that not only will there a reduction in emissions but also an increase in awareness about energy usage that will have far greater ramifications going into the future
This is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that excites and inspires me as I move into the future. More on the ESA project as it evolves. . .