May 05, 2014

Written By: Jill Barlotta, Carbon Accounting Intern, M.S. Candidate TIDES Program

How many of you can tell me what one of those acronyms means? Maybe you can tell me what they all have in common? If not, you're not alone. Acronyms are plaguing our society making it very hard for people to understand what is going on. This is how I felt when I began interning at the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute and I had my first meeting with my supervisor. It seemed every other word was an acronym. I was thinking, “Oh no! What am I doing working in a position that requires an acronym dictionary?” Well no worries, after some research and the internet, I was able to decipher the acronym maze that awaited me.

So if you haven’t Googled all these acronyms yet, let me help you out a bit. The common element? They all have to do with calculating and reporting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As defined by the EPA, greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. Were it not for GHGs’ heat-trapping ability, our planet would not be habitable. However, the problem of climate change is essentially a problem of too much heat-trapping going on; a build-up of too many GHGs in the atmosphere, resulting primarily from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, etc), is shifting the balance of atmospheric dynamics that have kept the planet hospitable to human and other life for millennia.

Some common GHGs, and ones that are required for GHG reporting (more on this later), are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorinated gases. Fluorinated gases include hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). So now you are probably even more tongue-tied with all these intense sounding chemicals. For the purpose of understanding GHG reporting, lets focus on the three main gases: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O).

CO2 is the most commonly reported emission because it is the most prevalent (82% of emissions according to EPA) greenhouse gas created by human activity. As noted previously, it is emitted through the burning of fossil fuels or wood products, and the manufacturing of certain products such as cement. Universities are most focused on CO2 since they often emit little of the other GHGs, if any at all.

Are you still with me? I know this is a lot and believe me I was a bit bug-eyed my first few days of the internship. Once I began to research the phenomena of reporting, things began to click. Public GHG reporting began in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Government agencies, non-profit organizations (NPOs), and the private sector, asked by the World Resources Institute (WRI), came together to develop the GHG Reporting Protocol. This document provides the standard methodology guidelines that are used by the majority of reporting organizations and calculation tools. This is the methodology used by UNH’s very own reporting tool, the Campus Carbon Calculator (CCC). I am not going to get into methodologies yet. However, I have included the link to the GHG Reporting Protocol if you are interested.

The basics of reporting are gathering data, inputting into the calculator tool, getting results, reporting them to a reporting agency, and creating a reporting inventory document. Two reporting agencies that are tailored to colleges and used by UNH are The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) reporting tool, Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating Systems (STARS); and the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) reporting tool.

You now have the basic understanding of GHG emissions calculation and reporting, the ability to read an acronym and know what it means. I encourage you to do more research on your own and look out for future blogs. We plan on explaining calculating methodologies, the importance of reporting, gathering data, and many more TABs. TABs? What is TAB? TABs stands for totally awesome blog. Sorry--I just felt the need to create my own acronym.

As promised here is the link to the GHG Protocol. It is intended for corporations, but universities and communities have based their methodologies on this model.

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