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One of the bigger issues with LEED is that it certifies materials like timber that often have to be shipped from far away—a problem that UM met honorably by getting local wood despite forgoing rating points. Though there are signs of improvement, LEED has a reputation for certifying materials that are costly and quite often don't take into account the climate and resources of individual places. In other words, a building in Montana shouldn't be certified in the same way one would be in, say, the fluctuating humidity of Mississippi.
It's hard to argue against UM updating old or building new structures, especially when it comes to something as culturally and functionally important as the Native American Center. Modern facilities are an essential part of a university's ability to beckon new students.
If UM does continue erecting new buildings or renovating the old ones according to LEED standards, follow-up is key. Missoula green builder and consultant Steve Loken says it's a mistake to think the LEED brand is all you need.
"It's important that people don't just assume that when you get the gold LEED rating you've fulfilled your goals for energy efficiency," he says. "You have to commission a follow-up afterward to make sure that the application of energy conserving measures work. Because sometimes they don't."
However, LEED is not the only answer for UM. In fact, building green doesn't require a third-party ratings system at all. Though Montana is starting to catch up with incorporating energy efficiency standards into statewide building codes, progressive states like Oregon, California and Massachusetts have requirements that surpass, in some cases, LEED's. UM could choose any of those state's standards as a model instead. Such a decision would allow UM to still hire good local businesses like A&E to do the work, and avoid paying extra for LEED certification. It would also allow for more flexibility to use local materials and site-specific mechanical designs, instead of focusing on the items that gain LEED points.
LEED is a brand, and, in that sense, it makes for good PR. But UM can do better by marketing itself as a leader in innovative, local-centric customized building that goes beyond what's required in LEED's broad list of qualifications. What better place to begin working toward that goal than a higher learning institution full of students interested in working on energy technology projects?
Transportation is one of the biggest carbon emitters on UM's campus, accounting for 31.6 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the areas of air travel, commuting and the university's fleet of vehicles.
UM's climate action plan has already begun to implement important transportation solutions such as incentives for students, faculty and staff to walk, ride a bike or bus to school, and ensuring fleet vehicles are compact, hybrid or use biodiesel.
For air travel, UM is looking toward purchasing "high quality" carbon offsets to balance out the extra emissions that can't be mitigated otherwise. In general, buying offsets means UM will fund projects that actively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The plan suggests working with companies like Clear Sky Climate Solutions, a local group with two Montana projects underway: one that deals with rangeland and another with dairy methane. By purchasing carbon offsets, UM can keep emitting carbon through air travel because they are balancing those emissions by supporting carbon sequestration projects elsewhere.
Experts aren't sold on the concept of buying carbon offsets. National companies have made a business out of selling carbon offsets with the driving incentive of making money—not helping the environment—without much oversight. A study in the peer-reviewed journal Climate Policy found just 60 percent of the carbon-offset projects it looked at actually provided evidence that they were reliable.
Steve Running, regent professor of ecology in UM's School of Forestry, is among the skeptics.
"When you buy an airline ticket you can pay something like an extra $25 and supposedly buy a carbon offset for your flight," says Running, who did not contribute to the climate action plan. "That's a completely unregulated market and nobody really knows whether it truly offsets the carbon emissions that you bought it for."
A 2008 study from the congressional watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ranked forestation and agricultural carbon sequestration projects—like Clear Sky Climate Solutions' rangeland project—near the bottom of a list for "very credible" carbon offsets. That's because measuring how much carbon is sequestered over long periods of time in a rangeland or forest is tricky. You could buy an offset that plants trees, but what happens when those trees burn in a fire or die from other means? If you buy an offset for carbon sequestration in grasslands, how do you continue to monitor carbon cycles in an exact way so that emissions and sequestration is always in balance?
"What I worry about is that carbon offsets give people a false sense of accomplishment," says Running. "If everyone flying around is generating the emissions that they are, we've got to face up to that. We may decide that we'll stay home more often and we may decide that we'll learn to live with it, but not facing up to the true numbers doesn't help in decision making at all."
Cherie Peacock, one of the primary authors of UM's plan, is already working to address concerns about carbon offsets.
She gives the example of The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, one of the first carbon neutral colleges in the United States. The college achieved its goals with some carbon offsetting, including funding a specific program in Portland, Ore., in which traffic lights are retimed so cars aren't idling and congestion is diminished. It's still not easy to calculate the exact numbers of emissions being saved by the project, and therefore the offset isn't exact. But unlike blindly buying offsets from just any national company, investing in specific, direct emissions projects as a partnership with environmental trusts cuts down on potential smoke and mirrors.
Even better, Peacock says she would like to see carbon offsets used for local projects that would be both easily quantifiable and have positive impacts on the community. Cutting corners, she says, is not part of UM's plan.
"There's a lot we're learning about the carbon offset world," says Peacock. "There's a difference between carbon offsets and renewable energy credits. For carbon offsetting, it's got to be a project that would not have happened if we had not funded it or somehow gotten involved. It also has to be calculated and then certified. And if you purchase it and sell that as an offset, then it's retired; it can't get counted more than once."
Carbon offsets might be UM's only solution for transportation emissions. President Dennison says, at a minimum, the university must purchase equipment and products for day-to-day campus business like computers, athletic gear, medical supplies and furniture that often is acquired through less than green means.
"We rely on trains, airplanes and trucks to get the equipment and products that we need to use in our operations because none of it is available locally," Dennison says.