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Duke's Carbon Offset Investments Boosts Trees in Wilson

The Duke carbon offsets initiative urban forestry program has planted trees in Wilson's Maplewood Cemetery.
The Duke carbon offsets initiative urban forestry program has planted trees in Wilson's Maplewood Cemetery.

Duke University has helped plant 40 trees in Wilson,70 miles from its own wooded campus. These trees are part of a new program implemented to absorb carbon dioxide emissions and improve air quality in the city.

The university is working with Urban Offsets, a Greensboro-based startup, which matches schools with communities and provides viable options in reporting and monitoring local investments in carbon offset credits.  Urban Offsets pays these communities to maintain the trees, and this provides new revenue for American cities as well as a healthier environment.

Wilson needed trees and Duke needed something called carbon offset credits.

A carbon offset is an activity that captures the equivalent of one ton of carbon dioxide emissions in an effort to slow the rise of greenhouse gasses. Duke will purchase the carbon credits produced by these trees, while Urban Offsets pays the city to maintain and monitor the status of the trees. This information is then compiled into a sustainability report that is sent back to Duke to prove the trees are in good health.

Duke has a goal of being carbon-neutral, or to have a net zero carbon emissions, by 2024. It has continued to work toward that goal by eliminating coal energy and bolstering the university’s bus system with hybrid fuel buses but also by using offsets such as planting trees.

“In the past, carbon offsets have been viewed as a last resort for institutions committed to carbon reductions because they’re rightly hesitant to outsource their climate responsibilities to far-flung and disconnected projects,” said Urban Offsets founder & CEO, Shawn Gagné. “But with this scalable urban forestry model, schools achieve the verifiable offsets they require through local investments that benefit the community and the student experience.

“We have a 3-year partnership with Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative to make carbon offset projects,” Gagné said. “We plan to make 10-25 more pilot projects throughout the region in the coming fall.”

Wilson was happy to help. “We are overjoyed in this public-private partnership that had its start in an entrepreneurial hub,” said Ellen Hoj, senior urban designer for the city. “Wilson has an emerging reputation of supporting innovation in new start-ups like Urban Offsets; and by supporting our tree plantings in the public realm, we can make our communities healthier for generations. That’s a solution the city can get behind.”

“Our Duke trees were planted in four areas: The Maplewood Cemetery, Rest Haven Cemetery, the Wilson Educational Forest and Hickory Grove Park,” Hoj said. “Our trees have done well and have a really good survival rate.” Hoj also said that there have been talks of beautifying a property the city just purchased by planting 25 more trees this fall. “It’s a gorgeous Victorian property that was built in 1889, and we’re restoring the garden as well as the inside.”

Trees are just one of several carbon offsets the university is pursuing, said Jason Elliott, program coordinator at Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative. “Some of Duke's steam plants have moved from coal power to natural gas and 30 buildings on campus are LEED-certified for their energy efficiency.”

“Planting trees isn’t the only way,” said Charles Adair, program manager at Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative. “Other facets include swine-waste energy and energy efficiency methods.”

After observing the well-being of the Wilson program over the course of the next five years, Adair says that the next phase would be to create models suitable for other universities. He listed Elon University as a possible future candidate.

Duke joined the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment in 2007 with the goal of reducing climate impact and training future leaders in the importance of responsible climate control. More than 650 schools have joined the ACUPCC since, with a commitment to measure and report their greenhouse emissions and come up with a plan to reduce them.

Gagné said that Duke bought 25 of the 40 trees planted in Wilson. The other 15 were planted as a buffer against poor performance and tree death. Data compiled from Urban Offsets’ Wilson project will be available to Duke Faculty and students for use in research projects on community health and sustainability.

Eric O'Neal is a senior at NC Central University who is working as an intern this summer with Duke's Office of News and Communications