“Carbon Neutrality Initiative Research” Student Fellows: Introducing Ellen Esch

Ellen Esch: Our graduate student fellow
Ellen Esch: Our graduate student fellow

Graduate student Ellen Esch is one of two UCSD Research Fellows under the UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative. Esch works in the Cleland Lab in the Division of Biological Sciences. Her research focuses on the topic of carbon storage under different global change scenarios in natural systems.

Shrub areas in California are facing pressure from changing precipitation patterns and invasion by non-native grasses. Esch’s research examines how these two dynamics affect carbon balances in production and decomposition processes. Under different rainfall scenarios, biomass production and decomposition can vary depending on whether the plants are native or invasive. Esch’s hope is that her results can be compiled to help quantify carbon storage potential across the University of California’s Natural Reserve System.

Esch is conducting her research across four sites in the Natural Reserve System. These lands are important natural laboratories that “provide unique and valuable opportunities for students and faculty research either as part of a thesis or as a component of a larger course in addition to helping provide a sense of place and fostering appreciation for natural areas,” Esch stated. In addition, the reserve has great potential to sequester carbon, and this research may be able to identify new ways of how to use and manage lands owned by the UC.

“I’ve always been interested in general carbon cycling processes, and I think growing up on a farm in Wisconsin really gave me a deep appreciation for the land, and soils,” Esch related. “I love learning more about prairies and being formally introduced to ecological concepts in college which has inspired me to pursue my graduate work in ecology!” She loves doing field work, where the fascinating animals, plants, and smell of nature never leave her bored. As a Carbon Neutrality Initiative Research Fellow, Esch will be able to share her love and knowledge of ecological research with the greater UC community.

To learn more about Ellen and our other sustainability staff and students, click here.

Source: http://nrs.ucop.edu
Source: http://nrs.ucop.edu

By: Linda Tong, UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative Student Fellow

“Carbon Neutrality Initiative Research” Student Fellows: Introducing Laurel Brigham

Laurel Brigham, one of our amazing student fellows!
Laurel Brigham, one of our amazing student fellows!

As part of the Carbon Neutrality Initiative, each UC campus has chosen Research Fellows to work on research projects related to climate neutrality. One of the Research Fellows here at UCSD is undergraduate student Laurel Brigham. She currently works in Dr. Elsa Cleland’s lab in the Department of Biological Sciences, and her project focuses on examining the effect of precipitation on the carbon storage capacity of soil at UC natural Reserves along the coast of California. This is important to study because the storage of carbon could offset the net impact of carbon emissions.

Brigham is interested in studying the effect of rainfall on California soil because of the current trends of decreased precipitation, which are likely to continue and become more extreme in the future. Brigham hypothesizes that drier soil in areas with lower rainfall will have smaller carbon pools as a result of decreased productivity. She also infers that grass-dominated areas will have smaller carbon pools, compared to shrub-dominated areas.

Brigham became interested in climate change research as a high school student. Through a UCSD extension program, Brigham worked under Dr. Joost van Haren in an Arizona rainforest biome to study effects of drought on the production of greenhouse gases by soil microbes. The experience sparked Brigham’s a passion for studying climate change. “My current work with soils is a product of that zeal for a deep comprehension of our changing world,” Brigham revealed.

Brigham’s favorite aspect of her research project is being able to answer questions through data analysis. She was able to collect soils on a sampling trip along the California coast, and has been working on sorting the roots and rocks, and quantifying the carbon content. The process is time-consuming but rewarding. “Being able to ask and then answer your own question using research methods is an incredibly beautiful thing,” Brigham expressed.

“I would like to expand this project by looking at soil microbial communities of the UC Natural Reserves that I have been examining,” Brigham stated, “so that I can compare their activity along a precipitation gradient and further my understanding of their importance on global carbon cycling.”

To learn more about Laurel and our other sustainability staff and students, click here.

Source: http://nrs.ucop.edu
Source: http://nrs.ucop.edu

By: Linda Tong, UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative Student Fellow

UC San Diego’s “EcoNauts”

There are a wealth of student organizations at UC San Diego focused on environmental sustainability and issues. The groups are welcoming of any students interested in making a positive difference for the environment, and some groups offer positions for interns to gain experience working in sustainability. Each group is a unique contribution to the sustainability-minded atmosphere at UCSD. Below is a summary of UCSD’s EcoNauts.
The EcoNauts are recruited by UCSD Housing Dining Hospitality (HDH), and their goal is to foster a culture of sustainability among HDH customers and student residents on campus. They focus on educating students about HDH’s commitment to being “green,” and about specific sustainability issues such as food waste, recycling and fair trade goods. To get their messages across to students living in the residential halls and apartments, EcoNauts host numerous interactive activities throughout the year. Past events include trash sorts and other interactive demonstrations, games and prizes related to reusing and recycling, and tabling about sustainable food sources. HDH has also created a budget for sustainability programs called “Green Grants,” and students in need of funding for projects focused on resource-saving measures can apply for a grant to cover expenses.
Contact: econauts@ucsd.edu

Source: http://hdh.ucsd.edu/sustainability/econauts.asp
Source: http://hdh.ucsd.edu/sustainability/econauts.asp

By: Linda Tong, UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative Student Fellow

What is Climate Neutrality?

I walk around campus, and I see a flurry of flyers and posters on sustainability and environmental issues. I pass by students and faculty, and I hear overhear comments on climate change and being “green.” It seems that trying to be environmentally-aware has almost become a new norm at UCSD. And who wouldn’t want in? It’s admirable to care about sustainable practices, energy efficiency, water conservation and the like. But even though a lot students have a general idea of what it means to be environmentally-friendly, the real importance of the University of California trying to achieve “climate neutrality” is an abstract and idea for many.

So what exactly is climate neutrality? Climate neutrality, or carbon neutrality, is the state of producing net zero carbon emissions, achieved by minimizing carbon emissions and using carbon offsets or other measures to reduce effects of the remaining emissions. In other words, it is producing as few greenhouse gas emissions as possible, and then producing fewer emissions elsewhere to make up for the remaining emissions.

As such a large university, UCSD is bound to emit carbon, but we can work towards producing net zero carbon emissions. Every time we use electricity we require a source for the energy produced. A business-as-usual model would show that we acquire our energy through combustion of natural gas, which is not carbon neutral. If we substitute natural gas with biomethane, however, we would be closer to our goal of carbon neutrality. Biomethane is a renewable source of energy that comes from recent organic matter, and the burning of biomethane releases carbon dioxide that would be freed anyway from decomposition of the organic matter.

Climate neutrality is difficult to achieve because of the continued development of the university, the growth of energy needs of our campus, and the amount of effort and funds needed to keep up with the newest green technology. Residential housing and research facilities on campus use up a large amount of energy, and the laboratory equipment and appliances we have around campus are not always the most carbon efficient (e.g. ENERGY STAR products). For example, there are still large printers on campus that have not been switched out for resource and energy efficient printers, and many laboratory freezers need to be upgraded as well. But with the right investments in renewable energy, climate neutrality can be a feasible and cost effective future for our university.

UCSD’s co-generation power plant
UCSD’s co-generation power plant

By: Linda Tong, UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative Student Fellow

A Closer Look at Reaching Carbon Neutrality

A large part of sustainability is working towards climate neutrality. But how can we attempt to produce net zero carbon emissions on a scale as large at the entire UC system? We need to outline specific goals and set intermediate goals. UC’s commitment to the Carbon Neutrality Initiative calls for all campuses to achieve climate neutrality by the year 2025, with the intermediate goal of lowering our emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. To achieve this without buying carbon attributes (purchasing the claim to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from another party to offset our own emissions), there are three main recommendations.

Counter Scope 1 emissions: UC’s co-generation plants are already carbon-efficient, but this infrastructure can be made climate neutral by substituting natural gas with biomethane. Biomethane is harvested from controlled decomposition of organic matter from wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and food processing. Indirect benefits include air and water quality improvements, organic fertilizer byproducts, and reduction of natural gas extraction.

Counter Scope 2 emissions: Procuring off-site green wholesale power will limit UC’s exposure to rising costs of utilities and cap-and-trade policies. Membership in the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA) will enable UC to develop a plan for obtaining carbon-efficient and cost-competitive electricity.

Develop deep energy efficiency: We need to expand the Statewide Energy Partnership (SEP) program, to provide more energy-efficient retrofits on our campuses and medical centers. Current projects are already expected to save ~$32 million a year, and savings can grow with even more investment in this program.

In addition to helping us become climate neutral, the recommended measures will lower our energy costs. Carbon prices in California are on the rise, as a result of California’s greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program. The cap-and-trade program sets a limit on the amount of carbon allowed to be emitted, and provides a market for unused carbon allowances. As the cap is lowered over time, the price of emission allowances will increase. In addition, utility companies will be required to produce 33% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, which will increase costs of grid electricity. Investment in the recommended measures (use of biomethane, hydroelectricity, and energy-efficiency program), will lower our future costs in energy.

CarbonNeut CarbonNeut2by: Linda Tong, UC Global Climate Leadership Initiative Student Fellow

UC’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative

Across all the UC campuses, there are numerous student organizations dedicated to working towards climate neutrality and a more sustainable future. These grassroots movements are an invaluable source of environmental-awareness sentiment, but there needs to be action on a large scale in order to create significant changes that will lead to reductions in carbon emissions. In November 2013, President Janet Napolitano committed the University of California to the Carbon Neutrality Initiative, calling for UC to reach carbon neutrality by 2025. UC would become the first major university to accomplish this sustainability goal.

UC Climate Goals:
A UC report outlining recommendations for implementing climate neutrality was first published in 2011. The report, Prospectus for a Sustainable Future, set three main goals:
1. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions to year 2000 levels by 2014
2. Reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020
3. Achieve climate neutrality as soon as feasible.

Scope of the Challenge:
UC could be emitting as much as 2.15 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2) by 2020, which is twice the amount of our emissions level goal (1.05 million MTCO2). According to the climate solutions report, all campuses need large-scale, off-site solutions to achieve the 2020 goal.

Emission Sources:
1. Scope 1: Direct greenhouse gas emissions from sources that UC campuses control. These emissions come from combustion of natural gas in UC’s six co-generation (heat and power) plants.
2. Scope 2: Indirect greenhouse gas emissions generated from production of UC purchases. These emissions come from the production of electricity and steam that the UC purchases.
Scope 1 and 2 emissions account for about 75% of UC’s total emissions.

Recommended Strategies:
Three main strategies have been outlined to avert carbon costs and control renewable energy costs while allowing UC to achieve our climate goals:
1. Minimize energy consumption through deep energy-efficiency (expand the Statewide Energy Partnership Program—comprehensive energy-efficiency retrofit program).
2. Procure renewable energy to counter UC’S Scope 2 emissions. Strive to attain renewable energy that is comparable in price to utility-supplied electricity.
3. Obtain biomethane (climate neutral; harvested from controlled decomposition of organic matter) for use in UC natural gas infrastructure to counter Scope 1 emissions.

Call to Action:
UC is making progress through campus-based energy conservation and renewable energy production (primarily solar), but is not on track to meet our 2020 greenhouse gas emission goal of attaining 1990 emissions levels. We need to take early actions in investing in renewable power, to allow our university campuses to reach climate neutrality.

CarbonNeutralityby: Linda Tong, UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative Student Fellow

Sustainability Opportunities at UCSD

It’s often easy to say that we care about the environment, and that we want to fight climate change. But how many of us actually go out and do something to benefit our environment, or raise awareness about the issues of sustainability? Even for those of us who take the initiative to tackle this huge topic, there are numerous challenges to working on sustainability issues. For one, there isn’t always easy access to hands-on opportunities related to sustainability. Second, there are multiple groups all trying to make a difference in preserving our environment but cohesiveness between the differing groups might be lacking. Lastly, funding for sustainability projects may be very limited. At UCSD, however, there has been much progress in dealing with these three issues. The challenges of trying to work on sustainability at UCSD have inspired the creation of many new opportunities.

Challenge 1: Ease of access to environmental service projects
Itching to do some hands-on work that helps the environment? Volunteering at the gardens on campus is an accessible and satisfying project to get involved in. Roger’s Community Garden (Revelle College), a student-led garden that serves the UCSD and San Diego community, is a popular destination. While working in Roger’s Garden, you can learn about growing organic produce, and other sustainability initiatives such as sustainable agriculture and nutrition. Roger's Garden

Challenge 2: Cohesion among the various environmental organizations
Is the sheer number of sustainability orgs on campus overwhelming? It would be helpful to have a centralized group that brings all the different orgs together—that is the goal of the Inter-Sustainability Council (overseen by representatives from the Sustainability Program Office and Student Sustainability Collective). Its purpose is to provide a way for various on-campus sustainability entities to share ideas and communicate with each other.

Challenge 3: Funding for sustainability projects
Working on a project to raise awareness of sustainability issues to students on campus can be costly. For example, purchase and installation of hydration stations were needed for reducing plastic waste. Recycling totes might be needed for resident recycling use. Lighting on-off sensors might be needed for utility savings. These materials could be funded by Green Grants, a portion of the Housing*Dining*Hospitality budget set aside for use by students or staff engaged in sustainability projects and efforts. Application instructions for Green Grants can be found on the HDH website. Students are definitely encouraged to request Green Grants!

by: Linda Tong, UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative Student Fellow