Trendsetters meet Offsetters

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

I’ve got the level with you, this is one of the most exciting projects that I’ve worked on in the history of ever. Let me lay down some context. Every year the University of Ottawa sends 500 students abroad to study in foreign and exotic places. Some people go to the States, some go to Australia. The one thing they all have in common... air travel.

So air-travel is bad. I hope that I am not shocking you with any big revelation here. Air travel is simply the highest form of energy use for travel (except maybe over really long distances but let’s save that conversation for another day). The International Office, the campus’ study abroad coordinators, have come up with a bold concept. They want to offset those emissions.

I can’t tell you how much my body was tingling when they told me this. Arguments aside about CO2 as a global warming agent, I thought that this idea was simply revolutionary. Why you ask? Because it forces people to recognize that their travel comes at a cost to the environment. Gone are the days of jumping in a plane and using more energy in one round-trip than most of the inhabitants of this planet with use in their entire lifetimes.

I know what you are thinking. Seriously Jon??? This is what gets you going? Well a bit, but what really got my attention is how we are going to offset these emissions. This summer Sarah Jayne spent many an hour working out how we value tonnes of CO2, basically how much does it cost to offset a tonne of CO2. And we came up with a number of about $20 dollars a tonne. This is about what it would cost to plant trees to remove that CO2. But the good people of the International Office wanted better. They wanted to know if we could do things locally.

Yeah, that’s right, locally! This is super cool because it eliminates some of the problems associated with purchasing offsets, especially in developing countries. So we at the office have spent our summer thinking of ways to offset locally. Everything from planting trees, to collecting compost, to recycling audits, to clothing drives, etc. We are breaking down activities into their base components so that students can earn their environmental passage.

More than anything else we are trying to make the program as fair as possible. If you travel to South America you are going to generate about 2 tonnes of CO2, and if you go to Australia you are going to use about 6 tonnes of CO2. Each student will be responsible for the GHGs they generate. For example, if you are going to Australia you would have to plant about 30 trees to offset your CO2, or recycle 25kg of aluminum, or pay about $120. Your choice. (Note these are not the actual numbers - please never use them in a report or something)

As far as I know this program is the first of its kind in... anywhere. It truly is a marvellous program because it combines environmental and civic responsibility. If you want to travel by plane across the planet, it is going to cost you this much money or this much time. Students will learn about the amount of work required to be responsible citizens. And because the projects are local, students will learn about thinking globally, but acting locally.


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