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MIT releases institutional greenhouse gas inventory

Data set a baseline for campus climate action.
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The MIT Office of Sustainability has published the results of the first comprehensive campus greenhouse gas inventory, giving the MIT community the opportunity to understand, study, and improve decision-making on the campus’s climate impact.

The published data include comprehensive greenhouse gas emissions for 2014 and 2015. Currently, the inventory measures the emissions from three categories on the Cambridge campus: energy use for buildings owned and leased for research, teaching, and administrative purposes, campus fleet vehicles, and fugitive gases, which are used for research and refrigeration. 

Within the current boundaries of the inventory, the data reveal that MIT’s largest source of emissions, by far, is the energy associated with operating campus buildings, accounting for 98 percent of emissions in 2014 and 97 percent in 2015.

The inventory provides a baseline for the greenhouse gas goal announced in President L. Rafael Reif’s five-year Plan for Climate Action. That plan, announced on Oct. 21, 2015, calls for a reduction in campus greenhouse gas emissions of at least 32 percent by 2030, using 2014 as the baseline year because of the accuracy of the data. The information provided by the 2014 and 2015 inventories will help MIT measure its progress toward the goal and determine exactly which strategies will significantly reduce the campus’s carbon footprint over time.

Donald Holmes, director of maintenance and utilities, noted, “Now that we have a more accurate inventory and greenhouse gas benchmark, we are better able to identify and prioritize energy savings and sustainability opportunities — and to incorporate them into our campus infrastructure work over the next decade.”  

With an accurate assessment of the quantity of greenhouse gases the Institute produces — and from what sources — MIT is now positioned to launch a climate action planning process in early 2016. The Office of Sustainability and Department of Facilities will jointly facilitate that process with contributions from students, faculty, and staff.

Across departments, MIT is already planning for ways to cut back on carbon. A major area for new improvement is in the MIT Central Utility Plant, which utilizes cogeneration to produce electricity, heat, and chilled water for the campus.  

“The commitment to reducing our carbon footprint has refocused us and impacted the conversation about the future of the plant,” says Ken Packard, director of utilities, who oversees the plant. “We anticipate that planned changes to the equipment and fuels used in the plant over the coming years can reduce campus emissions by 10 percent from the 2014 baseline — one piece that will allow us to reach 32 percent or beyond.”

The method behind the greenhouse gas inventories

Compiling the greenhouse gas inventory was a collaborative effort involving the Office of Sustainability; the Environment, Health and Safety Office; and the Department of Facilities. The team used the Campus Carbon Calculator to convert data from the MIT campus into metric tons of CO2 equivalent based on the World Resources Institute’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol. The MIT Office of Treasury and Planning then audited the 2014 and 2015 greenhouse gas inventories for accuracy, and will also do so for future inventories.  

“The process of tracking down and organizing the campus-wide data to support the inventory not only revealed new channels of collaboration between colleagues,” says Steven Lanou, deputy director of the Office of Sustainability, “but also revealed our community’s deep desire to make a meaningful contribution to address climate change at the local level.”

Moving forward, MIT will compile inventories on an annual basis, and plans to expand the boundaries over the coming years. In addition to the three initial categories of measurement chosen for the baseline inventories — buildings, campus vehicles, and fugitive gases — many campuses and organizations also measure the greenhouse gases generated by employee commuting, air travel, and campus waste. 

These emissions are what the GHG Protocol defines as “Scope 3,” or indirect emissions. Pursuing continual improvement, MIT plans to explore inclusion of these impact areas and others, such as the procurement of goods and services, in the coming years, with the help of faculty and students who can assist in improving methodology for data collection. 

Although the inventory release marks the first time MIT has taken a comprehensive approach to measuring its emissions, the Institute has estimated its greenhouse gas data dating back to 1990, and is able to assess these historic trends as it plans for a low-carbon future.

Campus as a laboratory for climate action

Making the data from the greenhouse inventories accessible to the MIT community for academic and personal use was an essential objective of the process. Sarah Brylinsky, a project manager in the Office of Sustainability, says: “Activating the MIT campus as a living laboratory is central to the emerging climate action planning process. We hope the community will use this information to assess means of reducing the Institute’s greenhouse gas footprint, improve our collection methodology, and ultimately help ensure MIT is a leader in demonstrating climate action.”

Publicly reporting greenhouse gas emissions opens the door to students, faculty, and staff to engage directly with the Institute as a test bed for carbon reduction. “Many researchers here at MIT have dedicated themselves to understanding and helping solve the enormous GHG challenge being faced by the global community today,” says Frank O’Sullivan, director of research at the MIT Energy Initiative. “Having our very own MIT GHG inventory provides us with a new and interesting platform to further support research in the area, along with also being a great teaching resource.”

Students and faculty have been integral to the collection and management of this data in the past, and the Office of Sustainability invites further involvement across departments in improving and refining future inventories through fellowships and course projects.

Julie Newman, director of the Office of Sustainability, says: “As citizens of the MIT campus, we all play a role in grappling with our greenhouse gas emissions, and we are at this exciting moment in time where we can lead on developing strategies at the local level that could be scaled up in communities across the world. Addressing the urgent threat of climate change is going to take big ideas from everyone on campus.”

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