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PSU capstone students measure University travel for climate plan
Author: John Kirkland, University Communications
Posted: April 11, 2012

How much greenhouse gas is produced by a year’s worth University-related travel?

A student capstone team started the process of answering that question this winter when it pored through thousands of travel records of Portland State faculty, staff and students for all of 2010. The data they collected provides a baseline that will help the University measure its travel impact for the years to come.

That’s because PSU’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) sets a target of maintaining 2010 levels of travel emissions, a goal that requires an in-depth understanding of where and how people travel. 

Most University travel is arranged through travel agencies, which give a detailed picture of mileage, destinations, number of legs in a trip, etc. But this doesn’t account for all travel. Some faculty and staff make arrangements on their own, paying with personal credit cards, and are reimbursed by the University. The students wanted to find out what part of total University travel came from credit card payments, so they pored through a year’s worth of travel reimbursement forms, which included everything from flights to hotels and meals. They discovered that these reimbursed trips accounted for less than 10 percent of University travel, meaning that the more detailed records from the travel agencies – the other 90 percent – was nearly comprehensive. 

“This discovery by the capstone group was essential for us to move forward with the climate action goals for travel.  We now have more confidence in the original estimate of travel emissions and can base future goals on those numbers,” said Sarah Renkens, PSU’s transportation and parking services manager and head of the CAP subcommittee in charge of travel and commuting.

This was the first capstone team to do a project related to the CAP.  The plan was formulated in 2010 as a way for the University to track and reduce its carbon emissions from the energy use of its buildings, use of materials, travel, and other sources. PSU-sponsored travel was estimated to be about 11 percent of the total when the plan was written, but better information was needed.

“In many areas, the tracking mechanisms and data required to measure progress or baselines is lacking or nonexistent. The data was just not needed in the past,” said Molly Bressers, program and outreach coordinator for the Campus Sustainability Office.

The capstone team not only confirmed a baseline for the PSU travel portion, but also created a Web site to help readers learn how to travel in ways that leave a lighter carbon footprint.

“Travel for University purposes is important. The work we’re doing is intended to cut emissions as much as possible through alternative travel modes, offsets, more efficient travel practices such as direct flights, and utilizing teleconferencing when appropriate,” Bressers said.