Workshop Provides New Ideas for Carbon Offsets at Columbia

by |April 16, 2019

By Meredith Harris and Arianna Menzelos

We are Meredith Harris and Arianna Menzelos, and we co-lead Columbia for Carbon Neutrality, a campaign urging Columbia University to commit to carbon neutrality in its upcoming 2020 Sustainability Plan. We are working with the Earth Institute and the Office of Environmental Stewardship to research strategies for Columbia to purchase and create carbon offsets. Through the generous funding of these institutions, we attended a workshop hosted by Duke University’s Carbon Offset Initiative on April 2nd. At the conference, close to 30 representatives from the sustainability offices of higher education institutions came together to learn about the process of peer reviewing carbon offset projects.

Meredith Harris and Arianna Menzelos

For unavoidable carbon emissions, carbon offsets offer a way to prevent other emissions or to remove an equivalent amount of carbon out of the atmosphere, through projects such as planting trees and capturing methane gas that leaks out of landfills. These projects can range in scale, method, and cost, and they can sequester different types of greenhouse gas emissions either locally or abroad. Many greenhouse gas emissions are difficult to eliminate, such as those from heating and cooling systems powered by coal or natural gas. Transitioning these systems to renewable energy is critical, but the process can be expensive and take many decades. Emissions from travel are also more difficult to mitigate. Therefore, offsets serve as an important step in reaching target dates for carbon neutrality — that is, having a net zero emissions footprint.

Through combining offset projects with implementations of energy efficiency measures and investments in renewable energy and electricity, Duke will be climate neutral by 2024, and thus serves as one of many great examples for Columbia. The Duke Carbon Offset Initiative was created after the university’s climate neutrality commitment in 2009, and its offset projects include urban forestry plantings, swine waste to energy anaerobic digesters, and energy efficiency education.

At the conference, the initiative’s leaders introduced these projects and explained the offset peer-verification training program. Offset projects must be verified largely to ensure their effectiveness in sequestering carbon, as well as to prove that they add to global carbon storage beyond business-as-usual. In addition to learning from Duke’s program, we also heard from other leading experts within the offset verification industry.

Each speaker at the conference addressed both the importance of verification as well as the many opportunities for higher education institutions to develop and participate in offset programs. Climate Action Reserve and Urban Forestry Protocol are two organizations leading offset verification projects around the world. These two organizations use certified peer reviewers, as well as professionals within the company, to analyze and verify the credibility of various offset projects. We also heard from Second Nature, a non-profit leading and assisting schools to commit to carbon neutrality, who noted that peer-reviewed projects can develop educational opportunities and leadership experience. Additionally, offset projects can leverage the research capacities and connections of higher education institutions. We studied Duke’s urban forestry project implementation and verification, and at the end, we heard from a Durham forestry expert about tree-health maintenance in the context of urban forestry programs.

We hope to apply what we learned at the conference to research on Columbia’s sustainability efforts. As an urban institution, we often confine our discussion of offsets within the realm of purchases. Yet it is also important for Columbia to consider beginning its own offset projects, as these can serve as an investment that can generate returns as well as ensure engagement on the part of the university. Through the skills we learned at the training, we passed an exam to allow us to peer-review offset projects for other institutions. We can help recruit reviewers to do the same for Columbia. One idea might be to partner with habitat restoration, beautification, or tree-planting organizations in New York to bolster efforts towards increasing the city’s vegetative cover. As the heat island effect intensifies warm summers in New York City, tree canopies will not only act as carbon sinks, but they will also provide for cooler oases in this concrete jungle.

We look forward to brainstorming innovative ways to incorporate offsets into Columbia’s current sustainability efforts. At the conference, we met John Pumillo, director of sustainability at Colgate University, who conducted student-focused surveys to assess priorities on offset purchases during his school’s offset planning. We propose to conduct similar research at Columbia, based on Colgate’s innovative research techniques, in order to engage the wider community and give them a louder voice in internal sustainability planning. This conference has provided a foundation for the more detailed research efforts of our group at the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia University. As a larger group, we will provide this report to the university’s Senior Sustainability Advisory Committee for the upcoming 2020 Sustainability Plan.

We are incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to attend this conference. We hope that our upcoming offsets research will provide even more evidence for the importance and feasibility of carbon neutrality at Columbia.

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