Counting Carbon

As we watch the calendar flip to a new year, we often find ourselves looking back in reflection while simultaneously making resolutions for how we might make our lives in the new year better.  We take personal stock so we can make concrete plans to build a better tomorrow for ourselves. 

Perhaps, it’s time for us to do the same when it comes to our collective selves and how we’re meeting the challenges and seizing the opportunities presented by climate change.  After all, you can look just about anywhere these days to easily witness the harsh new realities of climate change and how we’re falling short of our goals to avert the most catastrophic consequences of our addiction to fossil fuels. And while we each individually have a role to play in helping to address climate change, the magnitude of the situation requires bold and specific action from governments and organizations.  

In this spirit, Auburn has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050.  But just like we do when we make our personal resolutions, we must first take account of our actions from years past, before we can move forward with concrete actions in the future.  In this instance, that means conducting a greenhouse gas inventory.  

Graphic representing scope 1, 2, and 3 greenhouse gas emissions.
Source: Greenhouse Gas Protocol. www.ghgprotocol.org

Given Auburn’s size and complex amount of activities, completing an inventory requires the participation of people from across campus.  In fact, our office gathers data from over 15 different campus units and from a range of people within those units who manage and report on various data points.  A few things we collect data on probably wouldn’t surprise you, like electricity, natural gas, refrigerant use, and travel. But we also gather data on a few things that you might not think of like fertilizer use, waste sent to the landfill, and livestock, among others.  We then take all the gathered information and use the Sustainability Indicator Management & Analysis Platform (SIMAP) to generate a report detailing our scope 1 & 2 emissions and a portion of our scope 3 emissions.  

It’s important to note that our inventory isn’t perfect.  First, we aren’t actually reporting on all university-based activity.  Instead, we’ve chosen to focus on the main Auburn campus, which means we’re excluding both the positive and negative impacts that come from university operations around the state of Alabama.  Second, we also aren’t reporting on all sources of emissions for the main campus. Like most institutions, we so far haven’t captured information on all of our scope 3 emissions. Finally, some of the data we collect doesn’t directly align with the way we must enter it into the SIMAP tool, particularly when it comes to travel.  As a result, we have to make some assumptions and in some instances knowingly overestimate our emissions.  

Regardless of these limitations, our inventory does give us a sound understanding of how our choices as an institution, and as the individuals within it, impact climate change.  Such information will be critical to formulating our new resolutions and targets when we look to take further responsibility for building a better tomorrow by updating our Climate Action Plan in the near future so as to move us closer to our 2050 goal.  

Graphic depicting total greenhouse gas emissions of Auburn University by fiscal year.

Graph depicting fiscal year 2017 greenhouse gas emissions for Auburn University by emission category.

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