Students help PSU size its travel footprint
Author: Campus Sustainability Office
Posted: April 10, 2012

Capstone students teamed up this winter with Portland State staff to help the University better track carbon emissions from PSU-sponsored travel.

Currently, travel including flights (but not commuting) makes up about 10 percent of PSU’s climate footprint. In order to reach our Climate Action Plan goal to maintain 2010 levels of travel emissions through 2040, we must first understand how and where people travel now—the baseline data.

“I was quite impressed with the dedication of the students and their willingness to pore over so many travel documents,” said Timothy Waugh of the business affairs department.

PSU staff, faculty, and students who travel for university purposes can either book travel through a few contracted travel agencies, or purchase tickets themselves and get reimbursed.

The students combed through reimbursement forms and found that trips booked outside of PSU’s designated travel agencies account for less than 10 percent of all trips. This means the data PSU receives from the agencies is nearly comprehensive, including mileage, number of legs in the trip, and destinations—information that helps calculate greenhouse emissions.

This discovery filled a critical gap in PSU’s estimated travel emissions.

“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, transportation and parking services manager.

The students were part of the 2012 EcoDistrict Capstone course that worked directly with PSU’s Climate Action Plan Implementation Team, or CAP-IT, to help achieve the goals of the Climate Action Plan. Students in the course formed three groups—buildings and energy, travel and commuting, and materials management —which mirror the subcommittees of CAP-IT. The goal of the travel group is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through alternative travel modes, offsets, more efficient travel practices like flying direct, and utilizing teleconferencing when appropriate—without reducing beneficial university travel, such as to athletic events, national conferences or for research.

Much of this climate action work involves data tracking of greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy use, what we buy, and how we get around. In many areas, the data required to measure progress or track baselines is lacking or nonexistent. This is where the students stepped in to help.

As part of their final capstone project, they produced several infographics to illustrate travel patterns of the University, a website with green travel options, and an informational survey for PSU employees to fill out if they schedule trips without travel agencies.

In the coming terms, new EcoDistrict Capstone students will further the work done in the winter course, helping provide substance for the concept of the “living lab” in which PSU’s campus serves as the subject for sustainability research and curriculum, driving not only sustainable campus operations, but innovative academic discovery.