John D. Ivanko
January 28, 2011


Courtesy Jupiterimages/Comstock/Thinkstock

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Students in the illiniCarbon Program took a local approach to carbon offsets.

It’s the latest spin on thinking globally and acting locally. 

The University of Illinois has taken carbon offsets—the process by which you determine how much carbon dioxide you add to the atmosphere based on your lifestyle and offset it by investing some money in various technologies to mitigate your emissions—and put the results in your backyard, so to speak. 

Instead of Google coming to the rescue, students in a carbon-registry class at the University of Illinois devised a way to go carbon-neutral on a local level. Their plan offsets carbon emissions resulting from energy consumption in their communities’ homes, transportation, food and diet, and recycling efforts. The students imagined offsetting carbon emissions through a social networking site, like a local coupon from Groupon.
“In the spring of 2009, we created this carbon registry to support green projects on campus [and] to offset the carbon emissions of those who participated,” says Julie Fry, one of only two freshman enrolled in the class at the time. She’s now a junior, majoring in civil engineering.  “The illiniCarbon project was created to fund green innovations on campus and help establish Illinois as a pioneer in carbon emission credits.”

 While numerous carbon offset programs exist, such as the ones offered by CarbonFund and NativeEnergy, such an initiative had never been undertaken by a university and spearheaded by students.

“The students incorporated a simple calculator developed by The Nature Conservancy and a more comprehensive calculator from the Berkeley Institute of the Environment at the University of California so visitors  [to the website] can actually calculate the negative impact their annual activities have on the environment,” says professor Tony Endress, who taught the class along with  professor emeritus Wes Jarrell. 

The simple and quick carbon calculators were used to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

For the illiniCarbon project, it’s all about acting locally. Instead of capital-intensive wind farms or tree-planting initiatives, the students, under the tutelage of their professors, have focused on three carbon offset options on campus: thin client computing (a cell-phone-size computer to be used by students instead of desktops); automatic lighting controls (lights in campus buildings that turn off automatically with sensors); and serving more local food from the student-run organic farm in campus dining locations.

“While we started the project on campus, if it takes off, there’s a business plan set up to expand it into our community,” explains Fry, who also spent time working on the student farm.  “It’s an alternative to planting a tree in Brazil. By purchasing carbon offsets through this project, the funds would be reinvested right here in town.”

But saving the world can take time—and resources—as the students are quick to observe.

“Our university is very slow and needs a lot of pushing to do anything,” Fry admits. “The illiniCarbon project would supplement and help raise more money to cover the cost of the energy-saving technologies we envisioned on campus and reduce our emissions.”

The illiniCarbon project has been put on hold for the time being, says Karen S. Decker, assistant to the director at the Environmental Change Institute, the current home for the project.

“It is our interest in recruiting students and energizing this project again,” she says.

Want to make a difference in the leaders of tomorrow while offsetting your carbon emissions today?  The illiniCarbon project may be one way to do both. Check the website to see how progress is coming.  In the meantime, CarbonFund or NativeEnergy may be good standbys.

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