Geosciences graduate student estimates carbon footprint

Elizabeth Robinson

Dinosaurs aren’t the only thing that make a big footprint at the Jackson School of Geosciences. This summer, geosciences graduate student Elbin Collado calculated the college’s carbon footprint in collaboration with the School of Architecture’s Center for Sustainable Development.

“A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon you use in all of your activities,” geosciences associate professor Daniel Breecker said. “It just hits home how much carbon we actually use. There are all sorts of things that we tend to take for granted or forget about.” 

The calculation considered the carbon output of the Jackson School of Geosciences Building, JGB, and the E.P. Schoch Building, EPS, as well as school-related transportation such as field trips, Collado said. The calculated footprint did not include the contributions of individual students.

Although the Jackson School of Geosciences has fewer buildings and a similar number of students, its carbon footprint was considerably larger than the School of Architecture’s footprint was. 

“Our transportation emits quite a bit of carbon, and that’s because we do a lot of fieldwork,” Breecker said. “Some people in the Jackson School are going to the field (and) we go to conferences to present our research.”

According to Collado’s executive summary of his findings, transportation accounted for nearly half of the Jackson School’s total carbon footprint. The other main contributor was electricity. 

“We have a lot of labs in (the Jackson School) and they use a lot of power,” Breecker said. “The work we do requires (electricity). We need a way to generate electricity without producing carbon.”

Knowing the individual carbon contribution of each college is a big step forward in discovering sustainable ways to reduce the University’s overall carbon footprint, Collado said.

“The reason the study came about is because every university across the US is required to calculate their carbon emissions,” Collado said. “But what the schools don’t do is take that a step further by saying which colleges … contribute most to that overall number.” 

Last summer, as part of a project funded through the Green Fee called the Carbon Roadshow, architecture graduate student Susan Sharp calculated the School of Architecture’s carbon footprint, Collado said. Wanting to compare carbon emissions across colleges, Sharp and the Center for Sustainable Development contacted Collado. 

“I mainly worked on it, and (Sharp) gave me guidance and some tips from when she did a similar study,” Collado said. “She put a lot of the background work into it. She really helped me with the project, and she laid the guidelines and the groundwork that made it easier for me to do it.”

Both Collado and Breecker believe that the most change will come about because of large, concerted efforts on the parts of large organizations such as schools or governments.

“Half of the carbon emissions from (the JGB) are not attributed to the school,” Collado said. “The school is not responsible for energy that is used in the hallways or in the stairways … those are called ‘common places.’ I think a lot of work could be done on energy efficiency in common places, (such as) lighting, air-conditioning and heating.” 

Individuals can also reduce their carbon footprint by eating locally, reducing energy consumption and carpooling, Breecker said. But sustainable solutions will come from new technologies, he added.

“I don’t think that cutting back on things that we do is, in the long term, going to cut back on our carbon emissions,” Breecker said. “We need to find ways to do what we already do, and to grow and start doing more, without emitting carbon … we should be incentivizing research in renewable energies.”