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How Universities Contribute to Greenhouse Gas Emissions

As an employee at a university that takes sustainability seriously—SCU has a goal of becoming carbon neutral by the end of 2015—I was fascinated to read about how some classic academic activities, such as conferences, are a significant source of greenhouse gasses. Center Environmental Ethics Fellow Kate Cooper reports,

In 2013 Santa Clara University funded over 14.4 million miles of air travel. That number includes staff, sports teams, students, and faculty who traveled on university funds. But even that number doesn’t account for all of the air travel from the SCU community. Air travel associated with study abroad, events like parents weekend or graduation, or freshman orientation are omitted from this number. With the exception of study abroad (students traveled over 4 million miles for study abroad in 20131 [1]), the mileage and emissions for these types of air travel are unknown.

With 14.4 million miles in just university-funded air travel, it is no surprise that air travel encompasses a significant percentage of SCU’s greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, university-financed air travel released the largest amount of greenhouse gases out of any emissions category, comprising 35.8 percent of our school’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 (see each category’s emissions here). In 2013, those 14.4 million miles released over 16 million pounds (7,320.5 metric tons) of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.

To put these numbers in perspective, the maximum take off weight of a Boeing 747 is 1 million pounds. Now imagine 16 Boeing 747s at maximum weight made of carbon. That is roughly the annual weight of emissions from SCU-financed air travel. Therefore, it’s an important place to start when we think about how to become a carbon neutral campus. Of course, Santa Clara is hardly alone in this travel-fueled lifestyle.

You can read Cooper’s article for suggestions on how universities can cut down on this particular source of greenhouse gasses. Cooper is one of three student Environmental Ethics Fellows this year, all looking at the ethics of carbon neutrality.

Sustainability, Ethics

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