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April 23, 2007

Purdue's carbon footprint measured by students

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A group of Purdue students have for the first time measured the carbon dioxide emissions, or "carbon footprint," of the university.The research results of the class of 28 graduate and undergraduate students in diverse areas of study listed Purdue's total carbon footprint as 182,400 metric tons of carbon. This corresponds to a per capita footprint of 3.6 carbon metric tons, as compared to 6 for the national average and 1 for the global average.

The students spent three months evaluating the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels as a consequence of Purdue's activities and electric power purchases in the 2005-06 fiscal year.

"Purdue is fairly typical for institutions of this size," said Paul Shepson, professor of analytical and atmospheric chemistry and director of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center. "It is difficult to compare the carbon footprint to that of other universities because few have conducted such measurements. It is an extensive undertaking to quantify carbon dioxide emissions."

The students had to be creative to come up with methods for measurement and practical plans to curb emissions. They used a broad range of tools and components, including statistics, psychology, economics and engineering, Shepson said.

"The carbon footprint is a rigorous measurement of an organization or institution's effect on the environment," said Megan Walker, a graduate student studying earth and atmospheric sciences who is in the class. "This calculation was the most challenging aspect of the project. It went beyond purchased and produced energy to include indirect carbon emissions."

Daniel Schuster, who was one of the course instructors and is a project engineering group manager in Purdue's engineering, utilities and construction department, said this course will further Purdue's strategic plan to use resources wisely and prudently to improve the university, community and the world.

"This project provides tremendous information that was not previously available," Schuster said. "Purdue is aggressively working to increase energy efficiency and reduce its impact on the environment. Administrators, faculty and students at Purdue are conscious of the environmental impact of carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions."

Purdue has been a leader in research into renewable, clean energy sources and the effects of greenhouse gases on the environment through organizations including the Energy Center, Center for the Environment and Climate Change Research Center.

Schuster said the university also is working to become more energy efficient as an institution and to lessen its impact on the environment.  Programs already in place include campuswide recycling, free bus transportation, limits on the temperature range at which thermostats can be set and the installation of motion-sensor controlled lights.

"Staff members are being trained in leadership in energy and environmental design principles, or LEED principles, and newer standards for energy efficiency are being implemented," Schuster said. "The transportation office is testing two hybrid vehicles, and the rental fleet includes 90 cars that are E85 ready and 80 that use biodiesel fuel. At the power plant, the university is exploring options for 'green' energy purchases."

Purdue is refocusing on energy conservation, although it has implemented energy conservation measures regularly over the last 10 years. This new energy conservation initiative to measure energy consumption at the building level, identify opportunities to reduce consumption and to slow the rate of growth in consumption will allow Purdue to reduce its carbon footprint, Schuster said.

The students divided the university into sectors that included: on-campus energy, off-campus energy, transportation, permanent materials, consumable materials and land use. These sectors covered electricity provided from on-campus and off-campus sources; the manufacturing of building materials and construction of university buildings; and the consumption of food, paper, plastic and other non-permanent materials. The sectors also accounted for farms and land owned by the university, which had a net negative impact on carbon emission.

The study found on-campus energy to be the largest source of carbon emissions, with a contribution of 103,200 metric tons of carbon. Off-campus energy was responsible for 45,800, permanent materials was responsible for 18,000, transportation for 11,000 and consumables for 4,400 metric tons of carbon.

Purdue's student group performed a more comprehensive study than those that have been performed at other universities by including indirect sources of carbon, for example the emissions associated with the manufacturing process for building materials.

"Many of the sectors did not have readily available data," Walker said. "This is extremely new ground, and we had to combine strategies from across disciplines and fields to develop methodologies for this calculation."

The students also developed proposals on how to reduce this carbon footprint, including a campaign to change individual behavior, updating older buildings to be more energy efficient, and integrating new energy-efficient designs and technology into future buildings.

"The decisions we make today will impact our lives for decades," Shepson said. "We will have to change behaviors and attitudes at the individual level to resolve this issue. This project was a research and plan-development exercise for students, but it is a big step toward coming up with viable options."

Writer: Elizabeth Gardner, (765) 494-2081,

Sources: Paul Shepson, (765) 494-7441,

Daniel Schuster,  (765) 494-3407,

Megan Walker,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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