By Jose Diaz and Lianna Hubbard
We didn’t think this story would be so difficult.
We walked into this massive journalism conference, high on the thought of being the two student journalists, out of over 1500, with the story idea that would take all the competitive students, prestigious advisors, and famous journalists by storm. Our idea was to calculate the carbon footprint of the whole Fall 2019 ACP/CMA National College Media Convention. From the flights, to the hotel rooms, to the conference itself inside the Grand Hyatt. Everything.
We had a game plan to talk to climate specialists, student editors, specialized professors, the conference organizer, and even Hyatt’s corporate representatives. All of them, for quotes on the carbon dioxide (CO2) expenditure of flying all those students in, what hotels they may be staying at, what the hotel’s policy was on mitigating all that carbon was; and, our big answer to it all: what the cost to offset all that carbon would be.
But much of that didn’t happen. Actually, it was nearly impossible to gather the information of nearly 300 colleges and universities without heavy approximations, and many of those approximations fell out after talking to experts and doing our own research.
“It’s hard to put a price on [carbon offsets],” said Michael Sauer, a professor of natural sciences at Florida SouthWestern State College. “You know how much CO2 you’re putting out based on flights it seems like that’s reasonable, but the amount of CO2 that’s being drawn in is hard to put a price on.”
So what is a carbon offset?
Here’s an example; a person visits a carbon offset website. They use the online tools to calculate the CO2 emissions of their flight, and then pay an offset company, in a donation, to reduce emissions elsewhere in the world, therefore the flight becomes “carbon neutral”.
“A coal burning power plant could fund a reforestation project to plant trees that will soak up as much carbon dioxide as the coal plant emits,” said Sauer.
That sounds like a really good thing in theory; but in reality, carbon offsetting has a cloud of uncertainty around it.
What we found
We started this investigation by looking at how much flying to the conference affected the environment in pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from planes.
In our research, we assumed that every school (no matter how many in the group) took one direct flight to D.C. and one direct flight back. For cities it was unrealistic to take a direct flight, so plausible connecting flights were factored in.
This was the easy part of the story to get done. This investigation is very approximate, along with the numbers and figures involved.
The average amount of CO2 emitted by every school’s roundtrip flights was 5,680 lbs. With all 299 schools put together, we discovered that about 1.35 million pounds of CO2 were let into the atmosphere by all potential flights taking conference-goers to Washington D.C.
(For schools that are over a six hour driving distance from D.C., we researched the closest international airport that would take direct flights to Washington-Dulles International Airport (IAD). For those six or less hours away from D.C., we assumed those students drove or took a train/bus.)
We will use our college, Florida SouthWestern State College as an example. Five representatives from the Compass travelled 1,782 flight miles from Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) to Washington-Dulles International Airport (IAD).
According to an offset calculator, we released 4,455 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere flying to and from D.C.
Some schools were way over that mark, such as Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, which, hypothetically, transported 19 attendees by plane, emitting about 43,000 pounds of CO2.
The average American emitted about 44,000 pounds in 2017, according to the EPA. The total amount of CO2 emitted for all planes going to Washington D.C. (again, hypothetically speaking) was equal to about 31 Americans’ average CO2 expenditure for 2017.
For each person, a roundtrip flight released about 895 pounds of CO2 on average.
As for the hotel rooms rented in D.C. for roughly all 1500 attendees, there were no sufficient means for us to get a number of CO2 emissions from hotel rooms.
How many schools are taking how many rooms? Are they staying inside the metropolitan area, or outside the city? What hotels, and they’re commitment to carbon emission goals? How many people per room? There were too many factors to approximate, and we simply don’t have the resources to answer these questions.
Also, the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., which held the Fall 2019 ACP/CMA Conference, did not provide information despite several requests from us. We were unable to find the CO2 expenditure of the bottom three floors (where the conference and seminars were held) or the whole hotel, even after scanning many carbon emission-tracking maps of the D.C. area.
So how can we offset this?
This was the trickier part of our investigation.
Finding the cost to offset this CO2 is a much more abstract task and considers many more factors. At a rate of 31 cents to offset per pound, it costs about $32 per school to offset the entire cost of flying alone, or about $5 per person.
But how did we get that number?
The cost to offset our own trip through Sustainable Travel International would be $25.28 for every school.
We used this website to calculate the distance in flight miles between each airport and Washington-Dulles International Airport. We then input that number into a separate calculator from Sustainable Travel International, a non-profit organization “dedicated to developing sustainable tourism around the world.” That calculator gave us the amount of CO2 released from the flight miles traveled, and what the cost to offset would be.
“You’re funding, hopefully, foresting the world with your five dollars that you put extra with your plane ticket price, so you’re funding someone to offset how much CO2 you produced,” said Sauer.
Sustainable Travel International is one of those organizations you can donate your offsets to. So we thought ‘Awesome, we have this calculator that’ll give us the pounds of CO2 emitted for the planes and an opportunity for us –and everybody else- to offset their trips!’
There’s the problem, though.
“There’s thousands of different projects, so there’s no way to pigeonhole this system into one equation or one price,” said Sauer. “There’s so many steps along the way. What are they doing to draw out carbon? Who’s doing the funding? And who is getting paid to do all that work?”
Basically, organizations who offer an offset service calculate their own costs differently. A study by researchers from Stanford University and Yale University in 2009, found that “despite several robust findings, the market for carbon offsets is still relatively new, and one might reasonably question whether the market is thick enough for competitive pressures to be driving price differences.”
It also stated that “we find that providers located in Europe sell offsets at prices that are approximately 30% higher than providers located in either North America or Australasia.”
That’s one clue as to how offset companies decide they’re prices.
“Contrary to what one might expect, offset prices are generally higher, by roughly 20%, when projects are located in developing or least-developed nations.”
Ten years ago, if an organization was located in a third-world country, it costed more to offset CO2 going into the atmosphere than here, in the United States. We’re still wondering if it’s the same today.
“Also at play are other important variables that we cannot measure directly, such as continuing concerns about additionality, permanence, and credibility.”
Even back then, scientists were questioning the ability of these carbon offsets to actually offset carbon, in terms of growth, sustainability (of the organization), and credibility of projects.
We tried contacting the scientists from this study, but they didn’t respond by press time. If they get back to us, we will update the story.
Sauer also suggested that not all projects will offset that amount of CO2 you’re hoping to take back from the atmosphere.
“Maybe you fund some plants, they die, and they didn’t suck in all the CO2 that you wanted them to,” said Sauer. “It’s not like you pay for them and then they died, but you paid for them and a year later they died.”
The effectiveness of the carbon offset donation as an end product is clouded due to the lack of research.
“From a scientist’s perspective, I’m looking at how much CO2 is drawn down [from the atmosphere] with respect to how much money is going in” Sauer continued. “It gets confusing, it’s hard to see where the end product is.”
Attached to this story is a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that categorizes all the colleges and media programs who sent students to the conference. Listed are the schools, total amount of journalists and advisers who attended the conference, and what city they came from.
We were given this list by the ACP and added information, including flight miles travelled from the closest airport to the school to Washington D.C.
The reason we are including our data and calculators is to recognize the transparency and ambiguity when reporting this story.
Another reason we wanted to add our spreadsheet is to challenge everyone who attended the conference to calculate their own carbon expenditure. Maybe we assumed you flew from the wrong airport or took multiple flights. Maybe you drove eight hours with your crew of four people.
Either way, we challenge you to calculate the CO2 released into the atmosphere from your flight, and if you can feel comfortable with one organization, donate to them to offset the CO2 emitted on those flights.
Post your own calculations and share them with us by tagging @fswcompass.
We didn’t discover as much as we wanted to in this investigation, but we did find that carbon offsetting, as a concept, is clouded. We want to get people to start thinking about travel in sustainable terms, and to think critically of how, why, and where your offset money might be best suited.
“Long car trips and long plane flights were a very privileged thing to do [in the past],” said Sauer. “Today, its available for lots of different people, so that type of lifestyle might have to change if we’re concerned about CO2.”