Every year, students, professors and administrators at Duke University take to the air to get to conferences, research sites and assignments around the country and the world.
Whether or not they like or even think about it, each of their airline trips harms the environment in some way, including when the plane’s engines deposit more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
That’s a problem for Duke leaders given that they’re on-record as promising to make the school “carbon neutral” by 2024. So they’ve been looking for a way to offset the effects of university-related air travel, and are now testing one possibility with Delta Air Lines.
Duke and Delta are splitting the cost of a joint project that involves both the purchase of “carbon credits” to compensate for 5,000 metric tons of emissions and the planting of 1,000 trees in Durham and other parts of the Triangle to provide further environmental benefits. The deal’s worth about $60,000.
It’s supposed to offset the effects of university-related travel on Delta flights in 2017. For now, it’s a one-time thing, an experiment whose effectiveness Duke officials will assess as they get closer to 2024 and the point they have to make decisions about how they’ll actually fulfill the carbon-neutrality pledge.
“We’re looking at piloting projects like this to see if they’re ones we can expand over time,” said Tavey Capps, Duke’s sustainability director, adding that the experiments the university’s undertaken to date have been “implemented at a smaller scale than we’d probably need in the future.”
Campus officials think that along on-campus emission reductions, they need to find ways to offset about 185,000 metric tons of Duke-related, off-campus emissions for such things as air travel and employees’ car commuting.
Neither the carbon-credit purchase nor the tree plantings are new, as Duke has done both before. It’s also tried such things as investing in a Yadkin County hog farm that installed equipment to capture gas from hog-waste storage lagoons and use it to generate electricity.
In the Delta project, the university and the airline agreed to buy carbon credits through a Greensboro-based group called Urban Offsets.
The credits are modeled on the sort of cap-and-trade markets regulators have encouraged to allow the trading of emission rights for other types of closely controlled pollutants. But carbon credits, at least the ones Duke and Delta are dealing with, don’t actually work like them because carbon dioxide emissions in this country aren’t as yet tightly restricted.
Instead, carbon credits function as a sort of GoFundMe to help finance projects investors hope will ultimately act to reduce carbon emissions.
Rather than putting money into such projects on the front end, credit buyers are essentially paying into ones an assortment of environmental watchdogs think are working as intended.
The prospect of securing such future investment factors “into the financial decisions” and calculations of a project’s organizers, giving them an incentive to move forward, said Tani Colbert-Sangree, program coordinator for the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative.
In this case, Duke and Delta are putting money into emission-reduction projects that are improving the energy efficiency of trucks, encourage industrial composting and cut back on the release of greenhouse gases like methane from landfills, Colbert-Sangree said.
The tree plantings, however, will consume the majority of the joint investment. About half of them will go into “historically disadvantaged” neighborhoods in the Triangle ignored in 20th century street-tree planting efforts that mostly benefited well-to-do white communities.