VCU to give students traveling abroad an option to offset their carbon footprint

Four students hike on mountain.
VCU students studying abroad in South Africa in 2018. (Photo contributed by VCU Global Education Office)

Between 700 and 800 Virginia Commonwealth University students travel internationally each year as part of VCU’s education abroad programs to participate in a variety of transformational learning experiences such as international internships, service-learning courses, semester exchange programs, research projects and more. Starting this fall, those students will have an opportunity to offset the carbonfootprint of their travel.

“Each year, hundreds of VCU students travel the world to find enriching educational experiences. But at the same time, all this travel contributes to climate change and an increasingly unstable global system,” said Wyatt Carpenter, sustainability projects and program coordinator for VCU’s Office of Sustainability. “So the question became: How can we reduce the environmental impact of [studying abroad] while continuing to provide the important educational experiences? One answer is investing in carbon offset credits.”

When registering for an education abroad program through the Global Education Office, students will have the option to purchase carbonoffset credits. The cost will vary, depending on the specifics of the study abroad program.

“The idea is that the students could choose for themselves if they’d like to offset all or part of their carbon footprint,” said Stephanie Tignor, director of Education Abroad in the Global Education Office. “My understanding is that generally it isn't extremely expensive to offset [foreign travel] so hopefully students will be interested in offsetting [their trips] and that’ll start making a dent in our carbon footprint.”

The carbon offset program is one of several initiatives aimed at reducing VCU’s carbon footprint. Other efforts include Reboot Your Commute, a program designed to get people to and from campus on foot, on a bike, in a carpool or on a bus; VCU’s agreement with the GRTC Transit System to fund unlimited transportation access on the Pulse bus rapid transit, local and express routes for all students and employees of VCU, VCU Health System and Virginia Premier; and energy efficiency upgrades, such as more efficient light bulbs, motion sensors for lighting, and replacing outdated inefficient heating and cooling systems.

The carbon offset idea grew out of VCU’s Panama Avian Field Ecology class, in which students travel to Panama for an immersive study of tropical ecology with a focus on bird ecology conservation of coastal and mangrove ecosystems.

“Climate change is a huge contributor reducing habitat quality for migratory birds,” said Carpenter, who took part in the class as a VCU student. “Flying to Panama each year creates a lot of carbon dioxide which contributes to climate change which is damaging habitat for migratory birds. In effect, the research intended to help save migratory birds is also contributing to their demise.”

Cathy Viverette, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies, teaches the course and was instrumental in getting the carbon offset idea started at VCU.

“Since 2011, VCU students have been traveling to Panama to assist in an avian monitoring and research initiative focused on threatened mangrove forests, unique and highly threatened forested wetlands providing critical habitat for migratory songbirds,” Viverette said. “The students have observed firsthand the impacts of forest loss and degradation. They have seen a golf course and high rises appear on what was formerly mature mangrove forests and the resulting destruction of one of our oldest and most productive study sites — productive in terms of the abundance and amazing diversity of bird species — due to the adjacent development.”

But the students also have seen the hard work and success of conservation efforts by community partners in Panama. The Panama Audubon Society has played a leading role in recognition and protection of the wetland habitats in Panama Bay, a nearly 200,000-acre area of mangrove forests, and the Asociación Adopta el Bosque Panamá, which is dedicated to conserving a critically threatened rainforest in Panama, Viverette said. As a result, she said, her students have been interested in reducing their own carbon footprint, and in supporting tree-planting projects both in the U.S. and Panama.

“My students wanted to find a way to support those community partners’ efforts,” she said.

Air travel is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The transportation sector as a whole accounted for the largest portion (29%) of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, with air travel representing 9% of that total, according to the Environmental Protection Agency

At VCU, the Office of Sustainability estimates that students studying abroad flew 8.3 million miles in fiscal 2018, emitting nearly 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. The office estimates that study abroad air travel accounted for roughly 3% of the university’s carbonfootprint. The top three contributors to VCU’s carbon footprint are electricity (43%), natural gas used primarily to heat buildings (19%) and student commuting (13%).

VCU is a signatory of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a national compact among college and university presidents to address climate change by developing an action plan aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions on campus. VCU’s goal is to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

“Reducing carbon emissions at a large, urban research university like VCU is challenging and requires a multifaceted approach,” Carpenter said.

“We are excited and deeply appreciative to have an enthusiastic partnership with the Education Abroad office in finding a solution to this piece of the larger carbon neutrality equation.”

VCU is also a member of the Institute of International Education’s Generation Study Abroad initiative to double the number of American students who study abroad. The university joined the initiative in 2014 and committed to double the number of undergraduate VCU students who study abroad, launch new major awards for academic units that develop study abroad programs designed for their disciplines, and develop a fundraising plan to support a series of endowed scholarships dedicated to supporting study abroad.

Carbon offset credits allow travelers to invest in renewable energy and other projects that reduce the emission of greenhouse gases in the short or long term.

“Our goal is to have the option available starting in the fall,” Carpenter said. “Money will be used to purchase carbon offset credits from a verified offset provider to account for the emissions created through the study abroad program.”

A number of universities across the country have been rolling out similar programs to offset the carbon emissions from air travel. At Duke University, the school partnered with Delta Airlines to purchase over 5,000 carbon credits that offset all Duke business travel in 2017 while supporting the planting and care of 1,000 trees in the Raleigh-Durham area.

VCU is involved with a similar tree-planting project in Richmond’s Carver neighborhood. The Carver Tree Project, the pilot project of the Urban Forestry Collaborative, last year brought together resources from VCU, nonprofits and state agencies to plant and maintain 62 trees in the neighborhood, with a goal of offsetting VCU’s carbon footprint.

Jerome Legions Jr. of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League,left, and Tyrone Pitt scoop excess dirt during the Carver Tree Project planting Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (Pat Kane/University Public Affairs)
Jerome Legions Jr. of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League,left, and Tyrone Pitt scoop excess dirt during the Carver Tree Project planting Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (Pat Kane/University Public Affairs)

Eventually, VCU students may be able to offset their travel by purchasing carbon credits that support the Carver Tree Project and other local green initiatives.

Tignor, the director of Education Abroad, said she hopes that by offering VCU students the option to offset the carbon emissions from traveling abroad that it will lead to a greater awareness of everyone’s carbon footprint in their day-to-day life.

“It’s not just about students’ study abroad experience,” she said. “I hope that raises awareness of this massive problem that we have as a world and makes everyone more eager to be a part of the solution.”