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  • Getting to Green

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

Comparing apples to air compressors
September 11, 2008 - 3:02pm

Much of my life, this week, is focused on finalizing Greenback U's greenhouse gas inventory as it's going to be reported under the terms of the Presidents Climate Commitment. Not the numbers themselves -- those were pretty much set in stone (barring late discovery of outright error) back in the spring. Rather, I'm finalizing the "narrative" which will get submitted along with the numbers -- what's important, how it was calculated, what it means.

Some of our students are aware that the inventory is getting posted, and they're interested in how Greenback's numbers compare to those from other, similar-sized, universities. Whenever possible, I try to defer answering their questions using statements like, "let's wait until all the numbers are in -- it's too early to reach anything like a conclusion -- ask me again in a couple of weeks." Not that I blame them for asking, or for being impatient. Just that I really don't know much more about how Greenback's numbers will compare than anyone else does.

You see, while I'm confident that our actual emissions -- per student or per square foot or per whatever -- will be at least as good as average for comparable schools, I'm not convinced that the initial batch of reports will bolster that conviction. Data from some of the early submitters is confirming my general level of concern.

For example, a moderate-sized state school in the Western US just filed its report, and immediately issued a press release declaring its per-student emissions to be among the lowest in the country. I don't want to pick on this school, or its sustainability folks, so I'm not identifying it specifically. But let's just say that I find some of its numbers hard to believe, and the back-up data they've posted online doesn't answer my questions.

One of the patterns we noticed at Greenback is that almost all the variation in year-to-year commuting emissions is driven by our part-time enrollment. Part-time students all commute to campus (residence halls require full-time enrollment), and many of them (particularly graduate students) live a fair distance from Greenback. Full-time students, on the other hand, tend to live very near campus, if not on it.

Well, the school in question claimed, in its PCC filing, to have no part-time students. This in spite of the fact that their Enrollment Management folks publish figures indicating they have more part-time learners than full-time ones. And less than 20% of their full-time students live on campus. And, by all indications, public transit in that part of the country is very much in the "gee, wouldn't it be nice if ..." stage. And they didn't use the Clean Air/Cool Planet calculator (the one Greenback and the vast majority of other schools used). And they didn't post the home-grown calculator that they did use. And while their submission makes reference to their web site presenting more detail on how commuting emissions were calculated, I sure couldn't find it. And .... And .... And ...

My point is not that this, or any other, individual school did things wrong. My point is that we're all still figuring out what "doing it right" means. And if you ask 10 different schools for their interpretation, you're likely to get 11 different answers. It's a learning experience. The public U. may have understated their emissions. I may have overstated Greenback's. I don't think so, but they probably feel the same way about their numbers.

Happily, if we all took good notes, at least we can interpret the differences and get closer to a common understanding of what "getting it right" means. Then we can work toward some numbers which will allow meaningful comparison. Unhappily, the higher ed community is just now getting to the point where that discussion can meaningfully be conducted.

Maybe I should be telling the students to wait a couple of years, rather than a couple of weeks. (Right! Like that's ever going to work!)


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