Monday, December 19, 2011

how many trees does it take to gobble up 15,000 miles of carbon?

In just 12 days I will be boarding a jet at JFK International Airport, bound for India.  As we lift off from New York, there will be a lot of things on my mind about the trip---what will we see? what will we eat? when do we get to meet Aishwarya Rai?  Finding out the answers to these questions is going to be an amazing adventure.  But there is one question I have already figured out: what is the "carbon footprint" of sending 27 Colgate faculty to the other side of the world, and back?

It takes a lot of jet fuel to push a Boeing 757 through the air.  My itinerary will take me through Brussels, Belgium before landing in Chennai, India, for a total of 15,000 miles, round-trip, and my seat on these flights will account  for 3.6 tons of carbon emissions into Earth’s atmosphere. 

Despite the doubts of climate skeptics, there is overwhelming evidence that human-induced climate change is already reshaping our world, and will have many impacts on the planet throughout the coming decades and centuries.  Colgate iscommitted to reducing its carbon footprint and has an ambitious plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2019 (the University's bicentennial).

Colgate signed on to the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment in 2009; since then we have made a detailed inventory of the many ways that Colgate is responsible for emitting the gases, such as carbon dioxide, that lead to climate change.  By understanding how our everyday University operations lead to carbon emissions, we can take action to mitigate theseimpacts---already in 2010 Colgate was able to reduce emissions by 17% (vs 2009), largely through reductions in our use of heating oil, electricity, paper, and waste.

But one source of emissions that actually increased in 2010 was air travel, accounting for nearly 35% of our total carbon footprint!  Unlike our on-campus emissions, air travel is harder for us to make more efficient---we can either fly or not fly, and a lot of our campus activities are dependent on flights to and from Central New York.

For this reason, Colgate and many other organizations are now funding carbon “offsets” to make up for a portion of their emissions.  Offsets are projects around the globe that seek to create new sources of carbon-free energy (such as funding new wind farms) or to provide “sinks” for carbon (such as new forests).

Earlier this year, Colgate signed on with Patagonia Sur, an organization founded by Colgate alumnus Warren Adams, ’88, that is planting new forests in Chile as a way to capture carbon and sequester it in trees.  Colgate’s initial investment in the growth of the “Colgate University Forest” through Patagonia Sur will effectively offset our carbon emissions by 5,000 tons per year, accounting for about one-third of our total footprint.

I’m happy to say that Colgate is making a further investment in our Patagonian forest, paying for additional trees to offset our trip to India.  My 3.6 tons of carbon will take 8 trees to offset, and will cost just over $40 (or about 2,200 rupees!).  Those 8 trees alone won’t solve the climate crisis, but they will be gobbling up carbon long after I am settled back in wintry Hamilton.

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