• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Rethinking Scopes

Say the word "scope" to a campus sustainability wonk, and a specific frame of reference immediately takes over.  "Scope 1 vs. Scope 2 vs. Scope 3." The demarcation comes from greenhouse gas accounting or, more precisely, inventorying.

March 18, 2012

Say the word "scope" to a campus sustainability wonk, and a specific frame of reference immediately takes over.  "Scope 1 vs. Scope 2 vs. Scope 3". The demarcation comes from greenhouse gas accounting or, more precisely, inventorying. For a greenhouse gas inventory that's keyed to a particular place (like a campus), "Scope 1" emissions are greenhouse gases that are directly and locally created -- think about CO2 emanating directly from a building chimney or a vehicle tailpipe.  "Scope 2" refers to emissions which are indirect in that they happen somewhere else, but almost direct in that they are determined by decisions and actions taken on campus -- the primary example is greenhouse gases which are physically emanated by some electricity-generating facility at a remote location, in direct response to the flipping of a switch (or the setting of a thermostat) on campus.  "Scope 3" emissions are all other indirect emissions -- gases created as a result of employee and student commuting, other institutional travel, production of food for on-campus consumption, production and disposal of goods consumed (purchased, used up, thrown away) on campus, etc.. 

For purposes of GHG accounting, this three-scope model seems quite reasonable.  Direct emissions can be inventoried based on fuels burned on campus and a small number of additional sources.  "Scope 2" emissions can be estimated based on electrical or other utility bills, factored for locality (the mix of means by which electricity is generated varies from one region to another).  And "Scope 3" emissions can, at best, be guessed at.  They're acknowledged to be important but, for practical purposes, no college or university has good data on which to base an estimate.  Of course, neither does pretty much any other entity, so we've nothing to be embarrassed about in that regard.

Since the first major task most colleges and universities undertake once they decide to become more sustainable is a greenhouse gas inventory, this Scope 1/2/3 thing gets pretty deeply embedded in our vocabulary and our thinking.  And I'm starting to wonder whether that's part of the problem.

Part of the problem, that is, that's facing many campus sustainability folks at present. 

The problem of figuring out what comes next.

This isn't to say that all the tasks we identified early on are complete -- there are still many more energy efficiency projects to be implemented, waste diversion (recycling) rates to be increased, vehicle miles traveled to be reduced, local food sources to be identified and the like.  But on a conceptual basis, all those (within the limits of existing technology) are solved problems.  And even if we were to be 90% successful on all of them (a likelihood about the same as that of winning the Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes and getting hit by lightning on the same day), we wouldn't really have achieved what we said (and meant) we wanted to do.  Not even close.  So what else should we be focusing on?  What does the next stage of the campus sustainability movement need to look like?

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the reason nobody (to my knowledge) has come up with a good answer to that question is that the question -- though obvious -- is misguided.  You can have a sustainability movement that sets its roots down on campuses (and we do).  And you can have a movement which tries to make campus operations less unsustainable (we've got that, too).  And you can have colleges and universities which teach people how to live less unsustainably, or even how to help society learn to be less unsustainable (we've got a few of those).  But you can't have a campus sustainability movement, per se.  Because you can't have a sustainable campus, per se.  Not if you limit, or even strongly focus, your attention to what happens on the campus itself.  A campus, a college, a university can only be as sustainable as the society in which it operates.  To a small extent, the campus can proceed ahead of its surrounding society on some fronts (energy efficiency, recycling, local food sources among them).  But few schools can perform, even on this limited list of relatively simple topics, much better than do the communities, regions and societies in which they find themselves.

Think about it -- how sustainable can a campus's energy mix really be if almost all the power available in its region of the country is made by burning fossil fuel?  How locally can you eat if the community you're located in is surrounded by desert or miles and miles of suburbs?  How efficiently can your employees and students commute to campus if you're surrounded by suburban sprawl and public transit doesn't exist locally?  How sustainable is your water supply if levels in the aquifer you depend on are dropping rapidly?  Good intentions and best practices on campus can have only a limited impact.  Renewable energy demonstration projects can show folks that sustainable energy sources aren't technically impossible, but without appropriate scale (or incentives to create scale), they're curiosities, nothing more.

A recent analysis of King County, Washington, concluded that 62% of the greenhouse gases for which its residents were responsible on a consumption basis actually emanated from other locations, some of them on the opposite side of the globe.  Until I have reason to believe otherwise, I'm going to assume that something on the order of 62% of the GHG emissions for which Greenback U (or any other US college or university) is responsible similarly occur at some other location.  Which means that if I focus my attention strictly on campus, my best possible outcome is to address 38% (or some such number) of my campus's environmental sustainability problem.  And (in all likelihood) none of its social or economic sustainability issues, which are similarly rooted in the surrounding society.  Presuming I can eliminate 50% of my campus's Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions (to which, quite honestly, my wildest dreams don't extend), I will arguably have achieved 19% of perhaps 90% (assuming all other aspects of environmental sustainability are trivial -- a highly questionable assumption) of one leg of sustainability's "three-legged stool" or "triple bottom line".  Sounds like about 17% of 33%, or a little over 5% overall.  Hardly heroic.  Not much to aspire to.

So I'm thinking we need to be rethinking our thinking on scope.  Since we're working on (and employed at) campus, the campus has to remain at the center of the logical model.  But maybe "Scope A" should encompass what we do, personally and directly, as members of the campus community.  And "Scope B" needs to delineate how we interact with (provide service to, get goods from, socially and economically transact with) the immediately surrounding community.  Then "Scope C" might refer to our interactions with the larger society up to global scale. 

Most of the emissions, the economic transactions, and the social impacts for which Greenback is responsible are in Scope C.  And only by focusing on the dynamics by which Scope C operates -- and Greenback operates in Scope C -- can we hope to make them less unsustainable.  Another large chunk land in Scope B.  For Scope B activity, Greenback can exert more direct influence than in Scope C, so maybe one of the ways of accelerating the decline of unsustainable behaviors is to find ways of moving activities from C to B.  (Kind of a gradated span-of-effect vs. span-of-control sort of system design exercise.)

As is probably obvious, I'm unclear on most of this just yet.  But my sense is that shifting our focus (at least in part) from emissions to activities, and thus from Scopes 1/2/3 to something akin to Scopes A/B/C is part of the next phase of the campus sustainability movement.  After all, it's not campus-as-land-mass that relates to sustainabilty issues, it's campus-as-social-organism.  Which means it's you and me.  And what we do.  And what we cause to happen.  Wherever.



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