The University of Georgia’s Role in the Decline of Carbon Emissions

Cal Clements is someone who loves his 52’ Chevy almost as much as he loves his yoga studio. For him, upholding his values about society while not compromising his hobbies was going to require a unique solution.

For Clements, the solution was purchasing a carbon offset certificate for his beloved 52’ Chevy to reduce his carbon dioxide emissions.

“Most change is driven by volunteers and individuals, but that’s not how change needs to happen. Change really needs public policy to drive it,” said Clements.

Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas, and nearly one third of carbon emitted in the United States comes from transportation according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Over the 32 years leading up to 2012 the United States’ carbon dioxide emissions increased 2.5 percent.

Georgia, along with 21 other states, managed to decrease their carbon dioxide emissions while the nation as a whole was on the rise according to data from the United States Energy Information Administration. Despite the overall decrease, during those 32 years, the state of Georgia emitted 1,767 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from petroleum products.

Carbon dioxide emissions in the state of Georgia from the transportation sector peaked in 2005 at 68 million metric tons. Since then the emissions have declined.

“Younger people are driving a lot less in the last decade,” said Office of Sustainability Program Coordinator, Jason Perry, “ Millennials are waiting to get their drivers licenses…partly because of social media. They don’t necessarily need to be in person connected all the time.”

Georgia isn’t alone in this however. A report from the United States Energy Information Administration indicates that all Census regions experienced overall emission declines between 2005 and 2011, with the South seeing a decrease of nine percent.

Various factors have led to this decline in emissions, but alternative transportation initiatives at The University of Georgia should not be overlooked.

In 2010, all property in in state of Georgia owned by the university emitted 270,000 tons of carbon even after all carbon offset programs had been taken into account according to a report from the Office of Sustainability. Over the next four years, UGA was able to decrease their net emissions by eight percent. Out of the net emissions, 24,766 tons of carbon dioxide come from The University of Georgia’s transportation. This accounts for 14 percent.

When it comes to commuting to and through campus, students at The University of Georgia are provided with numerous ways to carry out their transportation needs, but accommodating roughly 35,000 students while remaining environmentally conscious is no easy task.

One way the university cuts back on their carbon emissions is to provide bus transportation throughout the campus. The University of Georgia currently has 57 buses that travel an average of 800,000 vehicle miles a year.

“With every passenger we carry, we are reducing carbon dioxide by eliminating a vehicle off the campus streets,” said Campus Transit Manager, Ronald Hamlin.

Hamlin admits that there is no current pressure to immediately transfer to alternative fuel, and states that the best thing they can do right now is increase ridership.

“We’ve done experiments with biodiesel and…it didn’t go well. We had issues in high temps and cold temps trying to fuel our buses. Our most important job is to make sure we have the service on the street every single day and it was making it very difficult for us to do that,” said Hamlin.

The University of Georgia’s climate, hilly topography and heavy loads make it hard to find the right alternative fuel solution. Hamlin seems to think support is growing, but Campus Transit is student funded and he says there is no appetite to raise tuition costs.

“A natural gas bus is about a 10 percent upcharge over diesel. Hybrid buses are about a 40 to 50 percent upcharge and electric buses are in the 50 to 60 percent range,” explained Hamlin.

Hamlin predicts that a change in the fleet may be about a decade down the road, but as they refresh the fleet and retire buses every year, they make sure the replacements are meeting new standards and policies.

“Whether we have one bus or 100 buses in our fleet, we have to have a fueling station and that’s a million and a half dollar investment on the front end,” said Hamlin.

With nearly 11 million trips being taken via Campus Transit in the last year, carbon dioxide reduction in the state of Georgia is under way.

In addition to Campus Transit, students at The University of Georgia are also permitted to ride the city buses at no cost.

Athens Transit and UGA’s Parking Services have a partnership where anyone with valid, university identification can hitch a ride from outside of the campus limits. This allows Athens-Clarke County to be listed as having the 4th largest transit ridership in the country according to a study published by fivethirtyeight.com.

But partnering with the city isn’t the only thing that Parking Services is doing to help reduce the carbon footprint of campus transportation.

“We can stack up against everybody,” said Parking Services Manager, Don Walter.

Among one of the first initiatives that Parking Services started was the priority system. Under this system faculty, staff and students had to apply for a parking permit, and those awarded a permit had a guaranteed space. This initiative was implemented in 2002, three years before the state of Georgia’s transportation carbon dioxide emissions began to decline.

“Before that cars would drive all around campus looking for a spot,” said Walter, “I had faculty members tell me that they were in tears sometimes trying to find a parking spot, and now with the priority system you go to one spot and stay there all day.”

For those who were not awarded a permit or did not want to pay the price for a coveted spot on campus, Parking Services also has an Alternative Transportation Program. In this program, people who make a commitment to traveling by foot, bike or bus are allowed to park on campus for free 22 days out of the year. Parking Services hands out roughly 2,000 ATP passes a year.

In 2008, Parking Services added yet two more programs to aid in reducing emissions on campus. The Tate Student Center allocated several spots inside its deck for energy efficient vehicles.

North Deck also went through a complete redesign to improve the traffic flow.

“It was a redesign that basically took a 20 minute exit from the deck and got it down to four minutes,” said Walter. By reducing the amount of time cars were idling, the redesign reduced the carbon footprint by 760,000 pounds per year.

The Parking Services administration saw such a drastic offset of carbon emissions from the North Deck redesign that they started another initiative two years later to further reduce idling.

With Automatic Vehicle Identification, vehicles can gain entry to parking lots without having to scan a permit.

The University of Georgia now has AVI technology in four parking decks on campus, and it has been so successful that there are plans to implement more. A total of 885 hours of idling are prevented on campus each year due to AVI technology. This is a reduction of 18,000 pounds of carbon dioxide.

“This summer the EO1 lot and the Intramural Field Deck are going to be completely permitless lots. Your license plate is going to be your permit and we’re actually taking the gates out so that is another sustainability initiative,” said Walter, “You’re going to zip in and zip out with no idling at all.”

Reducing idling seems like it may be on the forefront on what Parking Services is trying to do, but they still have not lost sight of the bigger goal of reducing emissions altogether.

“The support has been fantastic. We’re really able to do anything we want to do,” said Walter.

In 2012 the first electric charging station was installed into North Deck. Today there are three charging stations on campus that are utilized by students, as well as, all enforcement vehicles for Parking Services.

“We’ve had students come to our office and ask us where to plug in,” said Perry.

Perry has a goal of having charging stations where students can plug in and be no more than a five minute walk from any building on campus.

“I think we’re a little behind the demand with the chargers going in, but I think we’re catching up, and it has been great that we have put in as many as we have in such a short time,” said Perry, but Jason Perry and his team at the Office of Sustainability are beginning to focus more on modes of transportation that have no emissions.

“We want to make it a pleasant place to be on foot, or bike around, or ride a bus so students will want that when they graduate,” said Perry.

Office of Sustainability Director, Kevin Kirsche agrees, “If we can establish those habits now, they can carry them to the next stage of their life.”

The Office of Sustainability isn’t the only UGA entity focused heavily on the discourse of transportation, however. The University of Georgia Costa Rica program is equally as concerned about the mentality of individuals offsetting carbon.

Anyone at UGA who participates in a Costa Rica study abroad program automatically offsets their travel to and through the country via a reforestation program.

“To me, it’s bringing it in and having it as an educational tool that’s really at the heart of it all,” said UGA Costa Rica Director, Quint Newcomer, “even really more important to me than the exact amount of carbon we’re offsetting.”

In 2012, UGA Costa Rica planted trees which are estimated to capture about 310 tons of carbon to date by planting trees that are taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“UGA has done some incredible stuff over the last five years especially. It has gone from not really wanting to do anything to the understanding and perspective of being a leader and I’m excited about that,” said Newcomer, “I hope we continue down that path as a university.”