Student-Fueled Carbon Reduction Challenge Celebrates 10 Years

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Back in 2007, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS) Professor Kim Cobb wanted to spark outside-the-box thinking among her undergraduate students about climate science. So she asked them to remove themselves from the Earth – or rather, the Earth’s carbon dioxide footprint.

 “I wanted that year’s students to bank 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. That’s a quarter of a typical American’s CO2 footprint on an annual basis. I thought that was a pretty good chunk,” says Cobb, who is also College of Sciences ADVANCE Professor and Georgia Power Chair. “As an example, I’m reducing roughly 1,000 pounds of CO2 per year as a daily bike commuter.”

She celebrated when her class banked 50,000 pounds of CO2. The next year, her students doubled that figure. Not long after, Cobb integrated the Carbon Reduction Challenge in the undergraduate course EAS 3110, “Energy, the Environment, and Society.”

The course’s success at motivating students to think green has Cobb taking steps to expand it to include more undergraduates, specifically those who are taking their first steps into the business world.

Since she started teaching EAS 3110, Cobb estimates that student-generated ideas that have been implemented have kept out 5 million pounds of CO2.

“People ask me what gets me out of bed in the morning as a climate scientist, and it’s really this class,” Cobb says. “What the students bring in terms of passion, they translate into tangible results and real-world outcomes that really add up.”

The spring 2016 cohort offers a good example. Students placed a high-tech reflective coating on top of Georgia Tech’s O. Lamar Allen Sustainable Education Building to cut down on absorbed heat. The retrofit cost $49,000, including a 20-year warranty, but the change is projected to save $60,000 in energy costs over the next 10 years while avoiding just under a million pounds of CO2 emissions over the same time.

The Summer 2017 Carbon Reduction Challenge represents the next phase of the program, which Cobb is undertaking with Beril Toktay, professor of operations management and Brady Family Chair at Scheller College of Business. Thanks to a grant from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation’s NextGen Committee and the Scheller College Dean’s Innovation Fund, the program was expanded to include interns and co-op students from beyond EAS.

Cobb says the ideas generated by the 20 students in the summer cohort could keep more than 2 million pounds of CO2 a year from entering the atmosphere. The winning intern team, which worked at SunTrust Bank’s Atlanta headquarters, came up with solutions that will save the company millions of pounds of CO2 and hundreds of thousands of dollars over a five-year period.

For example, because most of the bank’s teammates relied on the default position in the rental car booking app they used, the interns simply switched the default position from intermediate-size cars to the more fuel-efficient economy-size cars.

The interns also proposed to expand Skype-style video conferencing as an alternative to short business trips. The technology would save on money and CO2 emissions incurred during day-trip flights.

It’s not every day that interns get to present recommendations like these to a company’s executive team. It’s even rarer when those executives decide to implement the interns’ ideas within seconds of hearing them. Yet that’s exactly what happened, says Alex Ketchum, an industrial engineering senior on the winning SunTrust team.

“We wanted to make it easier for people to be sustainable and save carbon than not to save carbon,” he said.

Remembering previous Tech interns, Amy Ross, vice president of environmental sustainability at SunTrust, says, “Frankly, the bar has been set high before, so we were thrilled to see how fiercely they took to this project. They went above and beyond what I could have imagined.”

Toktay saw the potential in matching Cobb’s class with interns and co-op students.

“The most transformative part of this activity will be the conversations that will occur within companies about CO2 reduction because of this project,” she says. “What they [SunTrust] really like is that you can be a sustainability champion from your desk, no matter where you are within a company. That’s the message they’re going to get out to all their teammates.”

Cobb says she is taking feedback on the past summer’s challenge while she and Toktay improve various aspects of the challenge ahead of a spring 2018 relaunch. Cobb is targeting new corporate partners, including major energy companies that could benefit the most from carbon reduction solutions that don’t require significant financial investments. That, she says, is the biggest takeaway from the Carbon Reduction Challenge: Companies don’t have to choose between greener strategies and profits.

“We can do both,” Cobb says. “This is a quantifiable, tangible set of strategies that anyone can deploy to have a win-win solution on climate change.”



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