How Low Can We Go?
Partnering to Build a Low Carbon Society
THE EVIDENCE IS OVERWHELMING, the recent discoveries unsettling. It's clear that society must urgently reduce carbon dioxide emissions to unprecedented levels over the next decade to begin stabilizing our climate system and avoid potentially catastrophic consequences.
The climate of our future is literally in our hands. Climate scientists have urged a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below current levels by 2050. Impossible? Not if Carbon Solutions New England™ has anything to say about it.
CSNE is an unprecedented, collaborative effort designed to achieve nothing less than a "low-carbon society" through transformational change in every sector of society.
Launched at UNH and comprised of an interdisciplinary, cross-college leadership team, the effort's heart and soul is the process of "engaged outreach." Under this approach, UNH faculty and staff affiliated with CSNE actively engage with other public, private, and nonprofit institutions in an effort to create a clean energy future while sustaining New England's natural and cultural resources.
Engaged outreach is a two-way street. Rather than academicians lecturing and downloading their expertise about the carbon cycle, greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change to the rest of us, they form partnerships with a range of institutions to help solve a shared problem.
"It has been said that universities are often focused on disciplines and society is focused on problems, which is why, aside from educating our youth, in many cases universities aren't helping to solve societal problems," says Cameron Wake of the Climate Change Research Center and CSNE director. Wake adds, "That's something we want to rectify."
Not to say the university or EOS has no history of engagement. To the contrary, one of the five major thrusts of the university's strategic plan is engagement, and, Wake notes, "EOS has a long history of outreach and, in fact, engaged outreach."
Forest Watch, Space Grant, GIS Day, Project SMART, are but a few examples of the engaged outreach spearheaded by EOS/UNH.
CSNE grew out of discussions between Wake, Berrien Moore, and George Hurtt of EOS, and Tom Kelly, UNH's chief sustainability officer. The brainstorming resulted in an effort to engage the university to its fullest in helping the New England region deal with the whole issue of carbon emissions.
The answer, it turned out, was to strengthen the strategic partnership between EOS and the Office of Sustainability and take it to a new level. CSNE is the growing fruit of that partnership, which now involves a host of other UNH players and private organizations.
According to Kelly, one of the keys to CSNE is its commitment to pursuing a low-carbon society within a framework of sustainability.
"Ecosystems, our food system, and our cultural systems have to be sustained simultaneously so that we don't create new problems while trying to solve existing ones with blinders on," Kelly says.
For example, if biofuels are approached in a way that degrades ecosystem functioning and increases food insecurity, then it is clearly not sustainable. "So this approach requires both broad interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral collaboration, which also happens to be quite exciting," Kelly adds.
While creating a low-carbon society may sound daunting, it becomes less so when approached in bite-sized portions–regionally rather than nationally.
So as the name implies, CSNE is concentrating on New England, which Wake asserts already has a powerful set of tools for the task at hand.
"New England has formidable intellectual and entrepreneurial capabilities. We produce students, ideas, we have considerable ingenuity, and we have the financial resources. So in our region, if we're really able to focus our efforts, we should be able to solve this problem."
Wake and others involved in the effort believe CSNE is the lens through which the disparate but related efforts to reduce carbon emissions will be focused on solving the problem.
Early on in the formulating discussions, the question arose of why, exactly, would others want to collaborate with UNH in such an effort? The answer was simple.
Says Wake, "We have a strong track record of reducing greenhouse gas emissions here at UNH." The most recent effort is a project that will pipe enriched and purified gas from Waste Management's landfill in Rochester, N.H. to the Durham campus. When the pipeline comes online in 2008 it will achieve a 57 percent reduction below 1990 levels.
In addition to the track record, UNH, like universities in general, brings another important tool to the table—the ability to collect and analyze data.
Says Wake, "So if people have direct questions that can be answered with data, we can go out, get the data, do analysis, and provide decisionrelevant information." He adds that this process can really only work when all interested parties are together talking and asking questions in a dialog of give-and-take, which comes back to the importance of engaged outreach.
Important, too, in this collaborative effort, is the fact that everything is "transparent" and public.
For example, front and center on the CSNE website is a tool called the "DeCarbonizer," an effort being led by Hurtt, that quantifies and illustrates how different actions will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the region.
The DeCarbonizer's transparency lies in the fact that, for example, if someone questions how simply washing clothes in cold water can reduce carbon emissions by the amount shown in the web tool, the data are clearly described and all the assumptions are laid bare right on the website.
Notes Wake, "And if this promotes discussion that's great, if people don't agree with the assumptions, that's fine. We'd love to talk to them about it."
The important thing is that everyone collectively work towards actual solutions, which is precisely what the DeCarbonizer is built upon. Even more precisely, the DeCarbonizer is based on carbon reduction "wedges." First introduced by Princeton University scientists Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow in 2004, wedges represent the amount of emissions that can be saved by changing current behaviors using existing technologies.
Hurtt notes that while the DeCarbonizer is based on the wedge concept of Pacala and Socolow, a key difference employed by CSNE is applying the wedge concept to the regional scale and dramatically increasing the goal fromstabilizing emissions to reducing them by 80 percent by the year 2050.
Says Hurtt, "For the nation to meet this challenge, New England must meet it. In fact, a strong case can be made that New England should take the lead in this effort. The DeCarbonizer is being built to quantify the potential strategies that could be implemented here and, in so doing, advance the debate from what we could do to meet the challenge to what we should do to meet it."
Wake and Hurtt have also created a course, "Building Wedges: Testing Strategies to Reduce Carbon Emissions in New England," in which students investigate potential wedges that will be incorporated into the DeCarbonizer (see Fall 2007 Spheres story). Wake and Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer with the UNH Environmental Research Group, are currently teaching a second version of this class.
The DeCarbonizer is one of three CSNE initiatives, the other two being an analysis of the economic impact of pursuing renewable energy (led by UNH professor Ross Gittell of the Whittemore School of Business and Economics), and a regional tally of "who's doing what" already with respect to emissions reductions (led by UNH political science professor Stacy vanDeveer). In addition, CSNE is supporting efforts to develop a UNH "energy lab" to help foster emerging alternative energy technologies in New England.
The project's "continuum of engagement," Wake says, involves a variety of partners with different levels of expertise. Clean Air-Cool Planet, for instance, is very good working with businesses and community organizations while another partner, the EOS-based New Hampshire Carbon Challenge, tackles the issue at the individual household level. Together, under the umbrella of CSNE, solutions are crafted from the household to the regional level.
The "take-away" of all this, Wake notes, is for people to realize that CSNE is both a set of tools and a process that requires effective collaboration. "Solving this problem requires a transformational response in our region, and we are helping lead that response." -DS
For more on Carbon Solutions New England, see www.carbonsolutionsne.org.
by David Sims, Science Writer, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space. Published in Winter 2008 issue of EOS Spheres. Illustration: Kristi Donahue, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space