A Balancing Act

Student group to make Last Day of Classes a green event

Order food and drinks? Check. Book bands? Check. Offset carbon emissions? Check.

This isn't a typical party checklist, but a Duke student committee organizing the 2009 Last Day of Classes concert and celebration is voluntarily working to shrink its carbon footprint by planting trees and buying local carbon credits to help offset emissions from buses, electricity and waste.

The April 22 celebration, which falls on Earth Day and is expected to draw about 7,000 people to the West Campus Quad, is like other large events that require transportation and energy: it will produce carbon dioxide, which contributes to overall greenhouse gas emissions.

"Our goal is to conserve resources and reduce waste as much as possible, such as having a sustainable dinner at Great Hall with local food and setting up recycling bins," said Meredith Estren, a Pratt School of Engineering senior and Baldwin Scholar leading the effort.

On a broader scale, Duke is facing the same challenge in working to become a climate-neutral campus, a pledge made by President Richard Brodhead in 2007, as part of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment.

Last year, Duke produced 434,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide through electricity, transportation and steam to heat buildings and sterilize medical equipment. While changes are underway to reduce the university's overall emissions, it is virtually impossible to totally eliminate the campus carbon footprint.


To help mitigate the impact of emissions, some institutions and corporations purchase carbon credits, or offsets. But Duke is exploring options beyond purchasing credits such as investing in research and projects that will improve North Carolina's environment and create renewable energy sources. Instead of simply buying offsets, Duke's goal is to make positive changes to improve the local environment and quality of life.

For example, a recent Nicholas Institute study recommends that Duke play a leading role in pilot projects to reduce methane emissions at hog farms using innovative waste systems, improve statewide forest management and raise public awareness about the importance of energy efficiency. For an offset to be valid, it must reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a way that would not have occurred otherwise.

"It would take about $4 million to purchase enough carbon credits to offset our current emissions, but we're determined to do as much as possible to reduce actual emissions on campus before we opt for any offsets," said Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and member of the committee developing Duke's plan to become a climate-neutral campus.

For Duke students organizing the Last Day of Classes event, the offset options include recruiting students and other Duke community members to plant trees on campus and purchasing carbon credits from NCGreenPower.org. As the first statewide green energy program in the nation supported by the state's utility companies, NCGreenPower.org offers local offset options, a more viable way to compensate for carbon emissions than purchasing carbon credits that don't directly benefit North Carolina.

"When we started working on greening Last Day of Classes, all I knew about offsets is that it was a trendy thing that people were doing to reduce the impact of things like flights," said Estren, the Pratt School of Engineering senior. "If we purchase carbon credits, we want to make sure they directly improve the local environment."