Carbon Neutral Road Trip

My friend Jack Byrne was in the upcountry last week to teach a sustainability workshop at Furman University. Jack’s the director of Sustainability Integration at Middlebury College in Vermont, one of the leaders in academic responsibility in the area of climate change.

Middlebury has pledged to be carbon neutral as an institution by 2016, and Jack has a large role in getting them there.

The college has a new biomass gasification plant. Rather than burn fuel oil from the Middle East, Middlebury burns a local renewable resource-wood from nearby forests and residue from milling operations, reducing their carbon footprint.

They move their nordic ski team around with a converted truck they run on waste vegetable oil from the dining halls. Their Snow Bowl has become the first carbon neutral ski area in the country.

Middlebury’s not alone in their pledge for a sustainable campus. Along with Middlebury, Furman was one of the first to sign the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a document that assures many of America’s schools will take climate change seriously.

Wofford College has now joined on as well. In all, about 675 colleges and universities have committed to develop plans for reducing their carbon emissions.

After Jack had finished his workshop at Furman we went on a road trip up through the southern mountains of North Carolina. We drove the back roads in my pickup truck, visited several friends, and talked about the state of the earth.

I took Jack up into Little Canada, one of the wildest corners of the mountains. Leftover snow from a big storm made him feel right at home. Then we stayed the night at my cabin near Cullowhee, where we sat next to a campfire and looked at a clear night sky free of light pollution.

Next morning we drove through the Nantahala Gorge, then climbed up the side of Wayah Bald and dropped over into the valley of the Little Tennessee where Franklin sits.

It was a typical road trip except for one thing. We were hyper aware the whole way of the carbon tracks we were laying down through the mountains of North Carolina. By the time we pulled back into Spartanburg we’d burned 20 gallons of gas, consumed four meals, bought a few things, and burned about 20 pounds of firewood with our campfire. All this made for quite a debt to the planet.

Being academics the irony did not escape us. Our institutional positions (Jack’s at Middlebury and mine teaching in Wofford’s environmental studies program) demanded some awareness and action.

But what could we do?

Jack said he buys carbon offsets for his trips. Carbon offsets are emission reduction credits from another organization’s sustainability projects that result in less carbon or other gases in the atmosphere. Jack uses a group called Native Energy.

They’re considered one of the top-rated carbon offset companies in the business. Payments for their carbon offset credits go to support renewable wind energy projects.

Some believe carbon offsets are a viable way to reduce individual, institutional, and corporate carbon footprints, while others ridicule offsets as pie-in-the-sky efforts to reduce climate guilt. The offsets make sense to me, if you use a company that’s legit like Native Energy.

Jack did a quick calculation before he left for Vermont and he figured our 300-mile road trip produced a little less than a ton of carbon. Native Energy charges about 12 dollars a ton for carbon offsets, so the credit will cost me about three lattes.

What’s the right action with climate change? The problem’s real, it’s not going away, and it will impact our lives even more in the future. I’m not willing to stop traveling, and I don’t think I’ll ever travel again without being aware of the carbon I’m spewing.

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