Air Travel Mitigation Fund solves Centre dilemma
Centre College is an institution filled with problem-solvers. So when it became obvious that the College was faced with a value-driven Catch-22, the community convened to find a solution.
The predicament? Centre holds two key, conflicting beliefs — the importance of studying abroad and the importance of minimizing the College’s environmental impact. Finding a way to reconcile these beliefs has allowed Centre to join a small group of institutions taking a lead role in addressing climate change.
“At Centre, we value international study and we value minimizing environmental impact,” says chemistry professor Preston Miles, chair of the President’s Climate Commitment Advisory Committee. “And those values are absolutely in conflict. But if they can’t be resolved in a college environment, where can they be resolved? At Centre, we’re recognizing the problem and working toward an appropriate course of action.”
For many years, transforming students into global citizens has been a primary focus at Centre. In fact, “educating students to be citizens of the world, men and women who are globally engaged and prepared to respond to opportunities from all parts of the world” is part of the College’s strategic plan. As a result of this focus, 85 percent of Centre students study abroad.
But it has also become increasingly clear that economic and social disruptions resulting from climate change may be one of the greatest global challenges. And by making it possible for every Centre student to study abroad — at countries both near the U.S. and far away — the College has increased greenhouse emissions via air travel.
To address this issue, the International Program Committee established the Air Travel Mitigation Fund in November 2009. The group stipulated that the fund be used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and environmental impact on campus.
The program allows students and faculty to purchase carbon offsets, contributing money toward carbon-reducing initiatives that counterbalance emissions that cannot be reduced or avoided — such as those generated via plane rides to study-abroad locations. Students studying abroad are asked to contribute varying amounts based on the air miles they travel.
The 2010-11 school year was the first in which students were asked to voluntarily contribute to the fund. And the students themselves played a central role in determining how the first year’s funds would be spent. A panel of students and faculty decided that for the first investment, a collection of occupancy light sensors was the best option.
Working with Scott Messer, assistant director of building trades, Miles selected an inexpensive motion sensor light fixture that could be installed in dormitory housekeeping closets — rooms where students and staff members often found lights turned on when unoccupied.
After three weeks of testing, the College chose a brand, purchased 40 sensors and installed them in residence halls around campus.
The results have already been encouraging. Using conservative savings estimates, which assume that the closet light bulbs were left on one-fourth of the time, the initial investment of $1,000 will save $609 and 95 tons of carbon dioxide in the first year of use.
Using another conservative estimate, which postulates that the actual service life for the motion sensors is identical to the three-year warranty period, the project will have a 180 percent return on investment.
“We can now compare the effectiveness of our on-campus mitigation effort to the price of offsets being traded on the Chicago climate exchange, where you can buy offsets there that cost between $4 and 40 per unit,” Miles says.
As a sweeping generalization, the majority of those offsets are $10 to 14 per ton of carbon dioxide. Centre spent $1000 and saved 95 tons in the first year, so if the gadgets only last a year, the College still saved 95 tons of carbon dioxide for $950, or $10 a ton.
Centre’s effectiveness in terms of carbon mitigation per dollar spent, therefore, compares very favorably to what people could buy on the carbon market. And if the sensors last three years, Centre will be providing carbon mitigation at $3 a ton.
During the current school year, Centre students will travel 170,648 miles in the sky. Their voluntary funds to offset the accompanying carbon emissions could fund an even grander project in the coming years, one that would be visible to all on campus.
“What is so magnificent about this fund,” Miles says, “is that it responds to a real issue. And Centre College is taking a leadership role in the carbon offsets arena; it’s a unique program that not many institutions are participating in yet.”