Penn begins purchasing carbon offsets for its aviation emissions

Air travel for university business will include a climate impact offset fee as part of Penn’s climate sustainability initiative. Credit: Nicholas Fernandez

Penn has begun purchasing carbon offsets for its aviation emissions in an effort to achieve 100% carbon neutrality by 2042, leading the Climate and Sustainability Action Plan.

For the first time, flights for university business will include a climate impact compensation fee, which will be charged to the relevant school or centre. Fees will be charged to the Travel Sustainability Fund.

The Air Travel Sustainability Program is managed by Penn Sustainability and Penn Procurement Services. An aviation offset selection committee – consisting of key personnel and faculty with appropriate experience – is responsible for selecting and validating the offset scheme.

Nina Morris, director of sustainability, said the team assessed projects against carbon markets and offsets guidance and institutional guidelines.

“The team goes a little deeper to make sure we’re confident in the selection of the program,” Morris said.

Benjamin Pearce, professor of computer and information science, was a member of the selection committee. Pearce said the issue of air travel carbon offsets was first raised about five years ago. Air travel by faculty, staff and students generates five to ten percent of the university’s carbon emissions.

Chief Procurement Officer Mark Mills formed a panel to discuss a climate impact offset process that would allow Penn to offset the amount of jet fuel burned on airplanes by paying to remove greenhouse gases.

After the pilot version of the CLIO process begins in July 2021, the Air Travel Working Group selected a specific offset project to fund Penn: an absorption program installed at an adipic acid plant in Florida, which destroys up to 98%. Nitrous oxide emissions of the facility. The actual purchase was made a few weeks ago.

“It’s been a long road,” Pierce said.

According to Morris, Penn is the only institution in the Ivy League with a university-wide aviation carbon offset program. He emphasized the importance of collaborating with peer institutions to determine the selection of high-quality projects, particularly Duke University, University of Edinburgh and UCLA as good examples of carbon offset projects.

“One of the great things about working in higher education is that we can use our peers as knowledge to develop programs here,” Morris said. “And then we hope to share it back with the larger community.”

One of the committee’s goals is to prioritize local offset projects that allow Penn to increase investment in the Philadelphia community.

Pierce said the purchase is part of a broader move toward sustainability across campus, including a faculty resolution to examine individual climate impacts and efforts to expand climate-related courses and majors.

“Penn as a whole is in the midst of a massive restructuring toward the challenge of climate change,” Pierce said.

Penn announced the decision to purchase offsets for university-sponsored flights in 2020. In response to the announcement, Fossil Free Penn recognized the initiative as a step in the right direction, but continued to advocate divesting fossil fuels as the most effective response to climate change. .

Shriya Karam, an engineering senior, conducted the “Advanced Transportation” seminar last year on the sustainability of aviation. His course explored ways to measure the benefits of aviation carbon offsets and provided recommendations for how the program could be implemented at Penn. He identified how localized offset programs could positively impact education and job creation in the immediate Philadelphia area.

“The best case scenario is to reduce air travel as much as possible,” Karam said. “But if we can’t do that, offsetting is definitely a step in the right direction.”

Morris also said that buying carbon offsets is a short-term measure, not a long-term solution.

“We believe the airline industry will decarbonise and then become irrelevant,” Morris said. “But until then, I think demonstrating what we can do to address the climate crisis is an important step that we’re willing to consider.”

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