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

Resolving Scope
December 31, 2008 - 5:13pm

A front-page article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal goes into some detail about how Dell Computer's announcement earlier this year that it had achieved carbon neutrality didn't mean as much as many folks might have presumed. (I highly doubt that the negative write-up had anything to do with today's article about a Dell management shakeup, but still ...). The front-page presence was only 1/3 of a column (albeit on the right margin of the page), but the continuation filled nearly a complete page of the US's leading business daily.

The main point of all this text was that Dell had decreased or offset their greenhouse gas emissions -- narrowly defined -- but that they were a long, long way from being carbon neutral if you look at the processes by which their computers are produced and consumed. Emissions from raw materials suppliers, component manufacturers, assembly subcontractors, product distribution and consumer product use didn't figure at all in Dell's numbers.

In truth, it's hard to see how Dell could possibly have done an accounting of the full life-cycle emissions resulting from their computing products. Many of their suppliers don't track or estimate their own emissions, and Dell is hardly expert in petrochemical production or rare metals refining. Emissions from consumer product use depend on consumer behavior, and I know I haven't recently told Dell how many hours a day/week/month I'm at the keyboard. (My estimate and my wife's might even differ on that particular subject!)

Dell included in its GHG inventory those emissions which it could reasonably estimate, and specifically excluded related emissions about which it didn't have (and realistically couldn't have) meaningful information. Writer Jeffrey Ball was pretty even-handed in his presentation of this truth, and pointed out that other companies (including NewsCorp, which owns the WSJ) are pretty much in the same boat.

So part of what I got from reading the article is a reinforcement of my knowledge that issues of scope -- what is the boundary of the emissions for which I (or Greenback, or any other organization) have responsibility, and what emissions are really somebody else's to worry about? -- are inherently complex, subject to multiple interpretations and perspectives (none of them necessarily wrong), and so a good topic for social education.

Therefore, be it resolved that in calendar year 2009, one of the things on my plate will be to reach out to the Backboro community and try to clarify the concept of scope. What am I, as an individual, responsible for? Are the emissions I create by my commuting to campus my fault alone, or is the fault something I share with Greenback U, or is it maybe something we're both responsible for in full? Does it really matter? To whom? How much? And for what purpose?

When any college or university does its first Greenhouse Gas Inventory, one of the first decisions it has to make is what scope of operations to include. For purposes of the Presidents Climate Commitment, the simple answer is 'not less than your direct (scope 1) emissions from burning fuels on campus; plus your (scope 2) emissions from the generation of the electric power, steam and chilled water you use; plus the emissions created by student and employee commuting plus university-paid air travel.' The PCC, however, makes the geographic boundaries somewhat flexible -- if you have a small operation in a distant city, you need not include its emissions in your inventory; if you have a teaching hospital where it would be hard to separate educational emissions from health-care emissions, you might decide explicitly to exclude that entire operation; that sort of thing. Another organization, the Climate Registry, has a different definition of scope: all operations in North America, but only Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions -- forget commuting and air travel. (FWIW, few colleges and universities report to the Climate Registry at this point, but the number seems to be growing.)

As I said before, the fact that there are differing answers to the question of who "owns" what specific emissions doesn't mean that any of those answers is particularly wrong. If I were trying to put together a state-wide summary of GHG emissions by adding the individual totals for each individual and organization within my state, avoiding double-counting would be a key consideration. If I'm a marketing director trying to make the most advantageous defensible claim for my company, I'd want to draw the scope boundaries as narrowly as possible (possibly, even more narrowly than Dell has done). If I'm trying to educate students, or position Greenback to take the strongest possible leadership position in making the Backboro area "green", I want to include as many different sources of emissions as I can practically estimate, so long as the university has (or can have) some hand in managing them.

So what's my resolution for 2009? I really can't hope to bring order into chaos; as more players -- and more competing agendas -- get involved here, it's quite possible that chaos will simply grow. What I can hope to do is to shed a little light into the local discussion, clarifying different sets of assumptions, different agendas, different uses for "carbon footprint" information. In a sense, I can try to referee the local discussion. It's information one level more abstract and sophisticated than what I've been sharing so far with the local community, but it's information that's necessary and will contribute to Greenback's leadership role.

After all, our recent and future attempts to inventory our greenhouse gas emissions are also bound to be incomplete by some standards. We know that. Dell's inventoried emissions are perhaps 5% of the overall footprint created by its computer products, and I'm not sure Greenback's inventoried emissions (for all my best efforts) really come much closer. If the university were to be absolutely, totally honest, we might have to admit responsibility for all the increased emissions from all of our alumni based on their increased lifetime consumption resulting from increased lifetime earnings. Human capital development, and all that. As an institution, we're happy to take credit for those increased earnings, but the greenhouse gas implications might be (ARE!!) a different story.

And, truth be told, we wouldn't want that story to appear on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Not even during the relatively dead period between holidays.

Have a good one!


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