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CSA plans project to offset carbon emissions from extracurricular student travel

The CSA Senate’s Sustainability Working Group is planning a proposal to offset the amount of greenhouse gases produced by student extracurricular travel. That is, to fund the prevention or removal of an equivalent amount of atmospheric carbon elsewhere. The group predicts the project will be launched during Spring Term at the earliest. While it has received positive feedback on campus, carbon offsets in general have garnered some criticism as a stopgap measure that does not fully address the climate crisis.

“Carbon offsets are a form of trade,” writes Sarah Dowdy from HowStuffWorks. In order to compensate for emissions, carbon offsets allow people to fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some projects include planting trees that draw CO2 out of the atmosphere, creating renewable energy that replaces fossil fuels, and methane capture (reusing discarded methane as an energy source). The CSA plans to supports projects on campus such as tree planting or supporting environmental engineering projects. 

Carleton categorizes its carbon emissions into “Scope 1” (natural gas), “Scope 2” (electricity) and “Scope 3,” which includes off-campus travel, waste production and paper use. Since the college began measuring emissions in 2008, it has reduced its emissions by 57 percent and surpassed its 2020—and 2025—emissions goals. Carleton has been able to significantly reduce Scope 1 emissions by shifting to a 100 percent geothermal energy powered grid this fall, and hopes to reduce its Scope 2 emissions by turning to wind and solar energy. However, Scope 3 emissions have so far remained constant. 

A majority of Scope 3 emissions are produced by air travel, such as faculty/staff trips to attend conferences and recruit prospective students, and student OCS programs.

“There’s not a green source for air travel,” said Alexandria Miller, the Sustainability Program Coordinator at the Sustainability Office. “As we address Scope 1 and 2, Scope 3 is just going to be a bigger slice of the pie, and we have no way to reduce those emissions.”

Beck Woollen ’23, the Environmental Advisory Committee Liaison on the CSA Senate, added that since the majority of emissions from extracurricular travel are “less directly tied to campus itself, it’s a lot harder to cut them back.” 

“Something like the geothermal project is amazing for reducing emissions here on campus, but it doesn’t really affect Scope 3 emissions. So those [Scope 3] are the emissions that we want to target,” said Woollen.

“At the end, we still recognize that we need to do offsets at some point,” said Miller. “There will be a small amount of emissions that we will not be able to account for—I’m thinking of waste. Composting and recycling, while they’re good, they still produce carbon. We’ll still be flying. In one way or another, we will still be producing emissions.”

Woollen has initiated talks about this issue with different campus organizations, including the Sustainability Office, the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE), the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), the  Student Activities Office (SAO) and Carleton Student Association (CSA) executives. So far, the idea for the proposal has been warmly received.

While the project is still under CSA purview, Woollen hopes that after a trial period or pilot program, the group will be able to “partner with administration to turn this into something more permanent.”

An obstacle the group has yet to overcome is funding. At first, the group discussed offering an opt-in charge for extracurricular activities if participants want their transportation to be carbon neutral. However, they are reluctant to pursue this path. 

“I think there are a few concerns, with clubs already having tight budgets. There are certain equity issues associated with who can afford to pay that extra bit, because a lot of clubs I know are pretty strapped for money,” said Woollen. “We would hope to raise funds in a way that places less of the burden on the actual students themselves. If there was an opportunity to collaborate with the administration or with alumni—or even just to kind of prop up a Carleton program and keep the money in house—I think that would be optimal,” he continued.

Both on campus and beyond Carleton, some controversy surrounds how effective carbon offsets are towards generating change.

“‘Offsetting’ carbon is not a real climate solution as it doesn’t stop the extraction and burning of fossil fuels,” said Maya Stovall ’23, a core member of Sunrise Carleton and Divest Carleton. 

“It would be irresponsible for Carleton to move their climate action to abstract ‘offsets’ when Carleton is still invested in fossil fuels, still flies people around the world to get to college and conferences, still perpetrates extractive and destructive capitalism by funneling people into upper class professions that perpetrate inequality and injustice.”

However, Stovall has an overall favorable opinion of the CSA project overall. “Some of the possibilities for carbon offset projects are not bad projects, and would benefit the community. Food Recovery, for example, is good. It’s good to plant more trees and vegetation too,” said Stovall. “But we just can’t pretend that increasing resources to projects like Food Recovery makes up for violent extraction and usage of fossil fuels.”

Woollen, who is also the co-founder of Divest Carleton, is sympathetic to Stovall’s point. “I think it’s a very fair argument, and probably one that I agree with—that offsets can be used in a way to make certain practices that aren’t sustainable seem okay,” said Woollen.

 “But at the same time, as a college who doesn’t really have direct control over [Scope 3] emissions, I think it’s a case where I’d say, in the short term, there probably isn’t a better option. I would almost boil it down to a dichotomy between either embracing [offsets] in the short term with the hope that we can transition away from them longer term, or just leaving the emissions as they are.”

“If we are able to partner with another group on campus, or if we’re able to pick a group near Minnesota or that we know is very reputable, then it is actually probably an opportunity to prop up something good and use it as a really cool tool,” added Woollen.

The Sustainability Office is not affiliated with the Sustainability Working Group’s project, but Miller has considered writing offsets into the next Climate Action Plan. 

“I go back and forth myself on whether we should just bite the bullet and pay for offsets now,” said Miller. “Because the climate crisis is a crisis, and it is dire that we reduce our emissions. Spending those dollars that we would spend in offsets, and just applying them to campus and reducing our own emissions—it’s the same pool of money, it’s just do we spend it on offsets now, or do we spend it on projects now?”

She mentioned Second Nature, an organization that the walking group hopes to collaborate with,  which holds colleges accountable to each other to invest in sustainability projects after they purchase carbon offsets. “This is a really great spin on carbon offsets, because a huge dilemma in my brain was where do we spend our dollars. This kind of helps with both issues, where we’re spending both dollars on carbon offset projects, but they’re here on campus, which is really cool.”

Miller, however, has mixed feelings about offsetting. “I think carbon offsets have the ability to make change, and they do; writing a check will still have a wind turbine brought up,” said Miller. “But I don’t think it addresses, and I think this is more long-term, it doesn’t address the ethos, the culture, the behavior change, of us actually doing the work.”

“That’s where I feel confident that there could be a two-pronged strategy of you can both [do the work and invest in offsets]. But there’s also I don’t want us to get lazy and complacent, and stop doing the work just because we offset our emissions. I think that’s where I’ll leave my answer, because there’s no right or wrong answer to it, but it’s a challenge. And with limited resources, right? It’s not like we have unlimited resources where we can do anything and everything. We have to pick and choose.”

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