Forestry School purchases carbon offsets

Carbon emissions may be the last thing on most peoples’ minds when they board an airplane. But not for the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

As part of its ongoing commitment to sustainability, FES has purchased “carbon offsets” — projects that directly remove atmospheric greenhouse gases or reduce their emission — to compensate for the 977,200 air miles traveled by 132 FES students on school-related trips in 2008, the school announced today. The firm that FES is paying, NativeEnergy, which markets high-quality carbon offsets internationally, will fund two projects costing over $7,000 to curb methane emissions.

“Travel is a very significant contributor globally to greenhouse gas emissions,” FES Deputy Dean Alan Brewster said. “But since it is integral to our students’ educational experience, the school has decided to invest in projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions to counteract emissions from travel.”

The two carbon offset projects — a Pennsylvania family farm that captures methane gas released by manure, and uses it to generate electricity and heat and a New York landfill that traps and destroys methane gas — will compensate for the 1.25 million pounds of carbon dioxide generated by student travel over the past year. This past year, FES students traveled to Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and across the United States to attend conferences and conduct research, Brewster said.

While travel creates a sizable carbon foot print, in some rare cases, the goal of the trip itself compensates for it. For instance, Dwi Astiani FES ’13, recently traveled to his home country, Indonesia, to research how to preserve its peat swamp. Since the swamp naturally sequesters huge amounts of carbon, preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere, the results of the trip, in some way, offset its initial energy cost.

All six FES students interviewed agreed reducing carbon emissions was important, but they said they did not think carbon offsets was the most effective strategy to do so.

Instead, they favored on-campus conservation — which they said could include installing motion sensor lights, setting computers to standby, increasing telecommuting and retrofitting buildings to be more energy-efficient.

“As someone specializing in environmental metrics at FES, I have many serious concerns about carbon offsets and their legitimacy,” Ariana Bain FES ’09 said. “But that said, there is a lot of travel associated with the level of academic inquiry found at Yale that cannot be avoided until large changes occur in the global system.”

Paul Beaton FES ’10, who traveled to Italy and Ecuador for a conference and to advise on environmental legislation, respectively, also said he does not see offsets as a “magic bullet.” Instead, he sees them as playing a relatively small role in Yale’s overriding goal to reduce its carbon footprint.

But despite students’ qualified reservations about the offsets’ ultimate effectiveness, they still expressed appreciation for their school’s efforts to minimize its negative environmental impact.

“As always, it makes me proud that FES is leading the way in such a commendable enterprise,” Agha Akram FES ’14 said.

The initiative follows an earlier project to offset travel-related carbon emissions launched in 2007, in which FES spent over $2,000 to compensate for emissions generated by students’ families attending their graduation.

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