Here at USM, we signed on to the President’s Climate Commitment in 2007, which is an agreement to actively reduce the carbon emissions of our campus and operations, signed by college and university presidents around the country. USM has committed to being carbon neutral, or having no net greenhouse gas emissions, by 2040. Five years in, where are we?
In 2009 the President’s Council on Climate Neutrality was created and wrote a Climate Action Plan to help move USM in the right direction. The plan, called “USM’s Guide to a Climate-Neutral Education,” includes many recommendations for reducing the carbon footprint of all three of our campuses. As the Assistant Director for Sustainable Programs in Facilities Management, part of my job is to research, implement, and update these recommendations in order to help USM meet its 2040 target. Some of the recommendations focus on energy conservation and alternative energies, some on waste reduction and others on transportation and travel. Anytime staff, faculty or students utilize a fossil fuel through electricity for their computers, hot water to wash hands, heat in offices and classrooms, transporting waste off campus or utilizing a vehicle to come to campus, we tally up and record all these cumulative emissions in our yearly greenhouse gas inventory. How do we come up with the numbers?
We have really good utility data that tells us how much electricity and natural gas we are using each year, and we have detailed information about our waste stream as well. What we did not really know was how our students and employees were getting to campus. Were you coming from near or far? How many times a week? Do you carpool? In the past, the Office of Sustainability had used a survey but found that the participation was low resulting in statically insignificant results. Therefore, we formed a partnership with the USM GIS Office to help us understand where our community members are travelling to and from in order to calculate the mileage, and therefore carbon emissions, associated with transportation here at USM.
We made a few assumptions and a lot of very educated guesses using information from the registrar’s office which provided home addresses (not associated with any names, of course!), the campus to which people were traveling and how many times per week the trips were taking place. Using GIS, we were able to figure that for the 2012 fiscal year (June 2011-July 2012) students and employees likely commuted about 38,832,365 miles to and from our campuses, equaling 8810 metric tons of CO2e in emissions. 38 million miles is a lot of miles! That is double previous estimates of 4,276 metric tons of CO2e in 2011. Without the accuracy and detailed nature of the GIS model, we would have continued to completely underestimate the impact of commuting here at USM.
The 2012 numbers assume that most people are taking a direct route and that they are traveling alone in a personal vehicle and not biking, walking, carpooling, or taking the bus. Although hopefully some people are commuting using alternative means of transportation and that information has not been captured, the model provides a baseline by which we can understand what our opportunities are for reducing the number of single occupancy vehicles that come to campus. Minimizing driving to and from campus would also reduce air pollution, congestion, the need for new parking on campus, and save students money by lessening their expenditure on gas and car repairs. Our next step is to find a creative way to measure how many students, faculty, and staff are utilizing transit, riding bicycles, or walking and which we can subtract from the numbers above. Maybe GIS or another technology can help us figure that out!
To learn more, see our ghg inventories, or read the plan, visit usm.maine.edu/sustainability or search for ‘Climate Action Plan’ on the USM website search bar.
Tyler Kidder is the Assistant Director for Sustainable Programs in the department of Facilities Management. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to Thea Youngs and Vinton Valentine at USM GIS for their work on developing the commuter mileage GIS model.