Union envisions carbon offsets for student travel


The sale of carbon credits to finance reforestation, ecosystem restoration, and resource conservation projects in different parts of the world may be in the future for Union as part of a proposed carbon-offsetting policy for study abroad air travel.

Union is one of many colleges and universities who are considering carbon offsets as an option to negate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions and reduce overall carbon footprint.

The college has been a signatory of the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) since 2007 and has a timeline in place for achieving net zero carbon footprint by 2060, according to the original stated goal.

The college’s current approach to carbon footprint management involves source reduction, on campus energy-efficiency projects, and purchase of renewable energy credits (RECs).

RECs are a type of offset that allow Union to support renewable energy for every kilowatt hour of electricity drawn from the grid.

Introducing carbon offsets as standard practice will give the college an additional tool at its disposal to address its carbon footprint reduction in the future.

The 2014 New Zealand miniterm was the first study abroad program to be fully offset by the college.

Union submits carbon footprint calculations annually to the ACUPCC. As part of this analysis, the college picks certain metrics that are consistent amongst our college and university peers.

This includes both on-campus direct emission sources such as energy use, vehicle fleet, or refrigerant usage, and indirect emission sources such as waste disposal, faculty/staff commuting, and directly financed travel.

Although student air travel is not a required metric for reporting, the college has opted to include it because students would not be traveling to these places were it not for the college incentivizing these programs.

Carbon offsetting works best for carbon-emitting sources that the college does not intend to reduce without compromising its educational mission.

Study abroad travel is one such target. Study abroad air travel made up 9-10% of Union’s total carbon emissions in the fall of 2014, according to Sustainability Coordinator Meghan Haley-Quigley.

There is an opportunity to consider sharing the cost of air travel offsets between the student travelling and the college in order to illustrate shared responsibility.

Carbon offsets are only successful if the intended mitigation project meets emission reductions as stated.

Projects that reduce emissions in one area but increase emissions elsewhere detracts from the purpose of carbon offsetting.

To this end, the sustainability office plans to mount a public education campaign in order to raise understanding of travel associated emission offsets.

The need to educate arose out of a study abroad survey for all winter term abroad participants last month.

The survey showed that 60 percent of respondents had no understanding of carbon offsets and nearly 90 percent of respondents noted that they did not realize options were available to travelers to purchase offsets online at time of ticket purchase (Amtrak, etc).

A major thrust of this educational effort will be on the cost. Haley-Quigley expressed “This is something that sounds costly, but is not on an individual.”

Notwithstanding the knowledge gap, carbon offsets enjoy broad support conceptually amongst the students’ surveyed. 60 percent of respondents were pleased, and 23 percent expected this proposal to be finally studied.

Examples from other colleges show that carbon offsetting can be implemented in a variety of innovative ways to meet desired outcome.

In 2011, Colgate University signed a 15-year commitment with Patagonia Sur to purchase carbon offsets that were used to plant 225,000 native-species trees in Southern Chile.

The Colgate University Forest project, as it will be known, reduces net carbon emission by more than 5000 metric tons, and is an integral component of allowing Colgate to be carbon-neutral by 2019.

The College of William and Mary C-Offset program is another success story.

C-Offset provided all members of the community the ability to offset emissions by investing 100 percent in on-campus energy-reduction projects.

This was done to increase transparency and respect for the program.

In the past, The College of William and Mary’s offset donations were purchased through third-party companies in the traditional market.

Doing so did not clearly reveal the type of project it was going to benefit.

Local offset initiatives are increasingly becoming a preferred option than off-campus offsets for ACUPCC colleges due to the advantages of leveraging on and investing in a project near home base.

At Elon University, interns have prepared a checklist that informs how personal behavior and daily life impact carbon emissions and reductions.

Elon plans to encourage students to commit to an action item as part of their individual study abroad offset initiative.

But, regardless of how and where Union plans to implement air travel offset projects, carbon offsets will be an important component in our carbon neutrality efforts.

Because air travel emissions will have a continual impact on climate, investing in carbon offsets must be done year after year in order for Union to make a difference in our sustainability mission.

Air travel offsets are a fitting proposition to consider at present time.

The college is expected to begin the process of updating its 2010 Climate Action Plan outlining sustainability goals at the Adirondack Youth Climate Summit this Nov. 12 and 13 at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, NY.

The essence of purchasing carbon offsets is that a small effort can make a big difference in neutralizing our carbon footprint.


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