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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Offsets figure into Carbon Neutrality Plan

Author: Tess Russell

For the past two years, incoming Middlebury first-years have received - among a myriad of other orientation materials - an offer from the College's Office of Environmental Affairs to purchase an "offset" for their individual carbon emissions. This year, 156 students participated in the program, most of those coming from the classes of 2010 and 2011.

In nine months (roughly the length of the school calendar), a typical student releases about three tons of global warming gases into the atmosphere just from using heat and electricity in his or her dorm room. This can be neutralized for 36 dollars through Native Energy, a Vermont-based offset provider that invests the money in environmental projects to create new sources of clean, renewable energy.

The offset market, which has experienced rapid growth over the past few years, is virtually unregulated - thus, not all providers are created equally. Clean Air Cool Planet, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding and promoting solutions to global warming, recently commissioned a study of 30 companies and identified eight of those (Native Energy included) as providing the highest caliber offsets. Three major factors determine the quality of an offset project: permanence, "additionality" and verification that the project is being carried out as intended. A forestry project, for example, is not ideal because the impact is not necessarily permanent - the trees planted could succumb to fire or pestilence and would no longer be able to perform their offset function of CO2 absorption.

Jack Byrne, the sustainability coordinator for the College, elaborated on the concept of additionality in an e-mail.

"Additionality means that the money used to purchase offsets makes a real difference in whether or not the project would take place," Byrne explained.

"For example, a wind turbine project on an impoverished reservation to displace electricity being purchased from coal-fired power plants would [make a difference], while a solar array designed as part of a building as normal practice would not."

Michael Kadish, the communications director for the San Francisco-based provider TerraPass, agreed that an initiative must be additional in order for it to represent a valuable offset.

"We evaluate different projects to make sure they are designed and implemented with carbon credits in mind," Kadish said. "For example, we would not fund something that had been initiated because of a state regulation."

As Middlebury approaches its 2016 carbon neutrality deadline, the administration (in conjunction with student activists like Bobby Levine '08) is pursuing various new strategies to reduce its emissions. Last year, the College's footprint, which is calculated based on carbon explicitly paid for with school funds and thus does not include student vehicle emissions, added up to 30,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. A staggering 89 percent of that inventory comes from the two million gallons of Number 6 fuel used to heat dormitories, so that figure will be cut in half when the biomass plant currently under construction is completed next December.

Levine, the Student Government Association Director of Environmental Affairs and one of two students on the MiddShift Implementation Working Group Steering Committee (MSIWGSC), stressed the importance of student-administration cooperation in reaching the goal of neutrality.

"The College is doing the big things that it needs to behind the scenes - like investing 11 million dollars in the biomass plant - but that doesn't necessarily mean that students are waking up and thinking, 'I'm glad my heat is coming from wood chips and not oil,'" Levine said.

"There's still a lot to be done as far as engaging students as members of the community and showing students that they do have a serious investment in the College's energy future," said Levine. "For the most part, the administration is very receptive to students' ideas, but they can't make kids stop using dryers and driving and doing the other little things that increase our carbon footprint. It takes students to do that kind of grassroots organizing and I think that's really the ideal - student-led initiatives, by students for students."

To that end, Levine and others have helped bring Zipcars to campus, coordinated shuttle buses to Boston and New York over breaks and pursued a variety of other service learning projects. These sort of school-wide efforts, combined with individual students' striving to reduce their carbon emissions in traditional ways, are the most important elements of the neutrality campaign. Offsets should be something of a last resort, used to account for the final remainder of already scaled-down emissions.

"We know that once we do everything else possible to directly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, we will still have some left, mostly in the employee travel category since we will still be taking planes, trains and automobiles to get around in 2016 and they won't be carbon neutral," Byrne wrote.

Most providers also put a lot of emphasis on reducing consumption before bringing offsets into the equation.

"Offsets are just one of many tools that people or companies use," Kadish said. "It really makes the most sense when employed as part of a broader green strategy or platform, so that's what we look for in our dealings with businesses."

In this way, the concern that offsets are a sort of "Get Out of Jail Free" card, whereby people can declare themselves "carbon neutral" while making few changes in their daily routine, seems to be inconsequential.

"It's hard to imagine that Middlebury students who purchased offsets would be content to rest on their offsets and wouldn't be actively seeking other solutions to climate change," Byrne wrote. "Evidence abounds that they are going way beyond offsets in how they live and how they are working to cause positive change for a more sustainable future."