Aspen Institute faces carbon conundrum
July 26, 2010
ASPEN – The Aspen Institute has made big strides in recent years to reduce the carbon footprint of its public forums and other special events once speakers and attendees reach the Meadows campus.
But when it comes to the more imposing problem of offsetting carbon emissions produced by travel to and from Aspen, the world-renowned think tank’s efforts are just taking flight.
The Institute is no better or worse than a lot of business and organizations starting to craft policies to offset travel-related emissions. The Institute, though, might be held to a higher standard because of its mission – bringing together policymakers, business titans and leading thinkers to ponder the world’s problems.
The Institute is trying to offset travel-related carbon emissions associated with the Aspen Environment Forum, a conference that started Sunday to examine issues such as climate change. It will purchase carbon offsets on the free market to try to counterbalance the travel effects of the 300-plus attendees and scores of presenters.
David Monsma, executive director of the institute’s energy and environment program, said the staff supplies attendance numbers and an estimate of where attendees are traveling from to a firm called Native Energy. The company calculates the carbon resulting from the travel, charges The Aspen Institute a fee per ton, and invests those funds in renewable energy projects.
Carbon offsets are also purchased for the emissions produced by the event’s audience while they are in Aspen.
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Monsma said the Institute has spent between $3,000 and $5,000 annually on the carbon offsets for the Environment Forum in the three years it has been held. The payments have been in cash or trades for an advertisement by Native Energy in the official program for the event.
The carbon-offset process has its critics, and it is going through intense scrutiny that could lead to improvements. But for now, Monsma said, “it’s the best we can do.”
The Aspen Institute isn’t working with Native Energy to offset carbon emissions of its other public forums this summer, the Aspen Security Forum and the Aspen Ideas Festival, institute officials said. However, guests who stay at the Aspen Meadows, the accommodations associated with the Institute, are offered the chance to buy carbon offsets to cancel the emissions generated by their travel and stay.
Kitty Boone, vice president of public programs at The Aspen Institute and an organizer of the Ideas Festival, said “very few” of the speakers at the forum arrived via private aircraft.
Native Energy has an impressive website that talks about the basic theory of carbon offsets, the projects it invests in and ways for individuals and businesses to calculate the CO2 production they are responsible for through travel, lifestyle and events.
An air traveler can use an application at the website to plug in their point of origin and their destination. The calculator figures the mileage and, from assumptions of the amount of fuel used, comes up with the amount of carbon produced. The emissions amount is doubled to take into account the “overall global warming impact of air travel for all air emissions,” Native Energy’s website explained.
Aspen’s curse, in terms of its contribution to climate change, is that it hosts more private air travel than many other destinations. The institute’s events are a significant contributor to private aviation. The tarmac was lined with immense private jets over the Fourth of July weekend, some no doubt belonging to people attending or presenting information at the Ideas Fest.
Travel on private jets produces significantly greater amounts of carbon emissions than commercial air travel. For example, a person flying from Los Angeles to Aspen on a commercial flight would be responsible for producing about 648 pounds of CO2 on a one-way trip.
In comparison, a Hawker 750, a midsized jet, flying one-way from L.A. to Aspen would produce 4.5 tons of carbon, according to Richard Heede of Climate Mitigation Services of Snowmass. Heede has been a consultant to the city of Aspen on several aspects of its Canary Initiative, a program designed to assess and reduce the town’s carbon footprint. If two people were flying to Aspen on the Hawker jet, that would produce 2.25 tons of carbon per person.
A Gulfstream IV, a larger private jet, would produce 7.3 tons of carbon on a one-way flight from L.A. to Aspen. Even if it was hauling four people to an Aspen event, the per person carbon emission would be 1.8 tons.
Heede didn’t assess the Institute’s program. He was merely providing data for comparison of carbon emissions.
Numerous government officials from Washington, D.C., have presented information at the institute’s forums, from Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Director Lisa Jackson. It’s a safe bet they aren’t flying commercial.
A one-way flight from Washington on the mid-size Hawker 750 would produce 9.44 tons of carbon emissions. The trip on the larger Gulfstream IV would produce 15.8 tons, according to Heede’s calculations.
A person flying commercial one-way between Washington and Aspen generates about 1,275 pounds of carbon.
The lesson from the comparisons, Heede said, is it requires a lot more mitigation for private flights. Even then, the cost isn’t prohibitive. The Canary Tags program through the city of Aspen charges $20 per ton of emissions for carbon offsets. A flight producing 9.44 tons of carbon would be offset for $188.80, likely a small amount for someone who can afford to travel in a private jet, Heede said.
The great unknown factor for The Aspen Institute is how many of the people attending or presenting at its events are taking initiative on their own to offset the carbon emissions of their travels to town.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben, founder of an organization dedicated to battling climate change, was a speaker at the Ideas Fest. He noted he has a huge carbon footprint because of the traveling he does to promote the cause.
“I offset my plane trips, of course, but I don’t labor under the delusion that that negates the carbon I pour into the atmosphere,” McKibben wrote in an e-mail exchange with The Aspen Times.
“I hope the general task is worth the damage I cause, and I try to choose venues that seem worth it,” he added. “I came to Aspen because I could combine a trip to the Ideas Fest with talks for CORE [the Community Office for Resource Efficiency] and ACES [Aspen Center for Environmental Studies] in the local community.”
While there are issues to resolve in offsetting carbon associated with travel, The Aspen Institute has partnered with the Aspen Meadows on everything from reducing the amount of bottled water and composting food to running more efficient buildings at the campus.
Aspen Meadows has earned certification as a ZGreen business, meaning it meets a threshold score on a checklist of items necessary to be “green” in a program operated by the city of Aspen, said Meadows General Manager Jud Hawk.
All food scraps produced at institute events and in the normal course of business are fed to a composter.
Any renovation that is contemplated is filtered through three special questions: Will the action help the organization be more green, will it help the Meadows reduce its carbon footprint, and will it decrease energy consumption.
The Doerr-Hosier Center received is LEED Gold-certified rating, meaning it met a high standard of efficiency.
Hawk said the campus is sprinkled with clearly marked containers for recyclable materials, compost and trash during events like Ideas Fest. That’s a standard practice that people expect and appreciate, he said.
And in the general scheme of saving the world, a relatively small step at the Meadows campus paid big symbolic dividends. The Ideas Fest demonstrated in past years how much bottled water 700 people can go through, Hawk said. Following a general environmental stance against the use of plastic water bottles, both The Aspen Institute and Meadows have cut back significantly.
The use of Fiji bottled water fell from about 500 cases to 50 cases over two Ideas Festivals, Hawk said. The water bottles used to be available to all attendees. This year, it was only made available to speakers.
People attending the Ideas Fest received a gift bag that included a reusable water bottle. Water stations were set up around the Meadows campus.
The issue is delicate because Fiji Water is owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, major contributors to The Aspen Institute. Small plastic bottles of their POM Wonderful pomegranate juice and other beverages remained available to the Ideas crowd this year.