SOM students offset carbon emission

In a novel effort to combat climate change, SOM students have implemented a plan to offset the environmental damage caused by the extensive air travel during the first-year MBA students’ “International Experience” trips in January.

Organizers said the program used a method called carbon offsetting, which reduced the trips’ net carbon emissions by contributing money to proxy organizations that in turn reduce their own carbon emissions or increase carbon absorption. In total, the group said it compensated for 2 million tons of carbon, which required $7,500 in total donations by SOM students and faculty.

Carbon offsetting is a relatively new idea, and has recently attracted attention from businesses and institutions seeking the label “carbon neutral.” Carbon offsets include the planting of trees, the use of alternative energy sources and techniques like carbon sequestration, in which emissions are captured and stored, often underground.

Austin Whitman SOM ’07, one of the organizers, said the group of students — most of whom are in a joint degree program with the environment school — thought of the idea during a casual conversation about climate change last October. Talking about the upcoming trips — which brought students to places as diverse as China and Argentina — led them to realize the vast amount of carbon dioxide released by the air travel involved, Whitman said.

“It became apparent to all of us that while we can’t offset emissions tomorrow, we thought this would be a good place to start,” he said.

After gaining the SOM administration’s approval, the organizers calculated the funds they would need to purchase enough carbon to offset the trips. In December, they presented their initiative to the various expedition groups, introducing their fellow students to the basics of climate change and carbon markets.

“People have been extremely enthusiastic” about the initiative, Whitman said.

After months of fundraising, the organizers sent an e-mail last Wednesday to the class of 2008, thanking the donors for their partipation. 60 percent of the class contributed to the effort.

Initiative organizer Matt Sly SOM ’07 said the students had two overall goals when they began the project: to introduce a program of environmental awareness that SOM could expand upon in the future, and to educate participants about the possibility of using carbon markets to help mitigate global warming.

“We are hopeful that [the project] will be continued on in future years,” Sly said.

In a related event last Wednesday, the School of Management hosted Richard Sandor, CEO of the Chicago Climate Exchange. Sandor lectured about his experience running America’s only carbon exchange, a program in which members voluntarily commit to a legally binding obligation to reduce emissions. Simultaneously, carbon broker SterlingPlanet made a gift to the SOM to allow the school to be “carbon neutral” for that day. Whitman said the e-mail announcing the student project’s completion was timed to coincide Sandor’s lecture.

While almost all students said they appreciated their classmates’ efforts, Max Mong ’08 said the specificity of the topic may make it inaccessible to some. Mong, who donated to the program, said that although it was a “really great” project, the complexity of the relevant issues could hinder long-term efforts.

“Unfortunately, it may seem obscure for many people,” he said.

Whitman said that while the organizers have no concrete plans for follow-up projects, he would like to see SOM hold a future “carbon neutral” commencement ceremony, like the environment school did last year.

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