UB’s Carbon Reduction Challenge returns with new ways to reduce – and count — WNY companies’ emissions

Hayley Martinez, a geology graduate student, presents May 7 at UB's GRoW Clean Energy Center along with teammates Valerie Ortiz and Chris Bevan on how Borderland Music + Art Festival can reduce its carbon footprint. Photo: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

After two-year hiatus, class once again allows students to work with local organizations on reducing their footprint

Release Date: May 10, 2024

Elizabeth Thomas.
“Now the students quantify their clients’ total emissions and can really target those big slices. ”
Elizabeth Thomas, associate professor of geology
University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Switching out fluorescent bulbs for LEDs. Rearranging sports teams’ schedule to reduce travel time. Carbon labeling grocery items. 

After a two-year hiatus, the University at Buffalo’s Carbon Reduction Challenge course returned this semester with both new and familiar student ideas about how Western New York companies can reduce their carbon footprint. 

And now students can tell companies by how much.

Partnering with carbon-counting experts from UB, Erie County and M&T Bank, student teams calculated the greenhouse gas emissions of their assigned organization — everything from its vehicles to its bananas — and used that to craft climate action plans.

“When we started the class in 2019, students came up with strategies to reduce emissions without knowing what their client's carbon footprint was. They had no way of knowing whether the emissions that they were reducing were a big slice of the pie or not,” says Elizabeth Thomas, PhD, associate professor of geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. “Now the students quantify their clients’ total emissions and can really target those big slices.” 

The carbon-counting component was first introduced in 2021, but the class was not offered in 2022 and 2023. The course wrapped up the 2024 spring semester with final presentations Tuesday at the GRoW Clean Energy Center, UB’s ultra-energy-efficient demonstration home on the North Campus. 

Now through four iterations, 60 students — from geology to architecture and planning — have proposed reducing carbon emissions of 20 regional organizations by a total of 75,000 metric tons of CO2 per year.

“There’s a little bit of everyone in this effort, and that’s how these problems are best addressed — through diverse teams addressing complex problems,” says Ryan McPherson, UB’s chief sustainability officer, who co-teaches the course with Thomas. 

Students presented their final presentation in UB's GRoW Clean Energy Center., an ultra-energy-efficient demonstration home on the North Campus. Photo: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

New data leads to news ideas

With six hospitals plus a headquarters-training center, Catholic Health has an understandably large carbon footprint. 

One of the ways students suggested reducing that footprint is switching all of the health care provider's lights to LED. They estimated that this alone would eliminate 70 tons of its annual carbon emissions.

“One of the joys of working with a company with such a big carbon output is that a little change can go a really long way,” says Sydney Gallo, a first-year graduate student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences' environmental and water resource engineering program. 

Gallo and her team also determined the switch to LED would save Catholic Health $50,000 a year; a key component of the course is to make compelling financial arguments for going green. 

Still, they were pleasantly surprised at just how willing Catholic Health was to become more sustainable.  

“I didn't think Catholic Health would be so open to so many changes, but [Director of Facilities Patrick Goraj] told us right out of the gate that sustainability was part of their mission statement and they'd already been doing things to achieve those goals,” says Mary Odden, an urban planning graduate student in the School of Architecture and Planning and a data manager-analyst for the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “So Pat was already on board and gave us lots of data. It was wonderful to have such a collaborative relationship.”

(From left to right) Students Cadence Mannino, Sydney Gallo and Mary Odden worked with Catholc Health to create a plan to reduce the health provider's carbion footprint. Photo: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

The range of companies participating in this year’s course ranged from big to small. Borderland Music + Art Festival, an annual three-day event at Knox Farm State Park in East Aurora, presented its own unique challenges. 

“A lot of sustainable action takes place over time and you get these benefits over time,” says Chris Bevan, an engineering sciences graduate student. “So we had to find solutions that could work in that short period of time that the festival takes place.”

One of the solutions was switching from diesel to natural gas generators. The students determined that this would reduce carbon emissions from 2.15 tons to just 0.1, while also saving nearly $1,600 per festival. Other solutions included using electric golf carts and offering entirely vegetarian food options.

Of course, one of the festival’s largest footprints is the commute of its over 10,000 attendees. The students conducted a survey of about 100 of those festival-goers and found the vast majority drive to it.

“What really stood out to us was just how much Borderland and other similar festivals could benefit from having a robust public transportation system in Western New York,” says Valerie Ortiz, a senior environmental geosciences major. “Why shouldn’t Western New Yorkers be able to commute to their own state parks?”

(From left) Students Hayley Martinez, Valerie Ortiz and Chris Bevan had to come up with carbon-cutting solutions that coule take place over the course of the three-day Borderland Music + Art Festival. Photo: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

Another participating organization with a large footprint related to travel was UB itself. Eddie Lopez, a graduate assistant for the men’s basketball team, found that UB Athletics’ 14 teams traveled a combined 100,000 miles in an academic year. 

In addition to only staying at hotels and flying with airlines that aim to become carbon neutral, Lopez suggested that teams stay on the road when playing multiple away games in a row. 

“If you're able to bundle trips and cut costs, then you'd also have a lot more room in the budget for recruiting, better meals, getting the players massages — all the things that boost performance,” says Lopez, who is pursuing a master’s degree in sustainability leadership.

Other organizations that participated in this year’s class were the Tool Library, a nonprofit that lends tools to community members in the University Heights; Lexington Co-op, a grocer with two locations in Buffalo and a focus on locally sourced food; and Junk Free Skin, a Buffalo skin care company founded in 2018. 

The companies entered the Carbon Reduction Challenge through the Western New York Sustainable Business Roundtable, a collaborative of public and private sector organizations working to demonstrate how WNY business can integrate sustainability and climate actions into their operations to benefit staff, the environment and the bottom line.   

Eddie Lopez, a graduate assistant for the men's basketball team, found creative ways that UB Athletics could reduce carbon emissions, including by bundling road trips. Photo: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

Extra benefits for students

There are other benefits to the Carbon Reduction Challenge than just reducing carbon — students get an experiential learning opportunity.

“I'm a geologist, so I've sat in a lot of classes talking about the environment and climate change. It was really good to be able to take steps in actually figuring out the environmental impact of one organization and how they can reduce that to hopefully improve the planet,” says geology graduate student Cadence Mannino, who worked on the Catholic Health team.

Hayley Martinez, a geology graduate student on the Borderland team, appreciated getting public speaking experience via the final presentation and meeting with the company throughout the semester.

“Getting that valuable feedback, not only from your peers, but also professors and people who have been in business for years, was something really unique that I had never experienced in any of the previous classes I've taken at UB,” she says.

(From left) Cadence Mannino and Sydney Gallo chat on the patio of the GRoW Clean Energy Center prior to final presentations. Photo: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

Other students got a new perspective on what it means to be sustainable.

“Sustainability is an uphill battle and it's still really new,” Ortiz says. “You don't have to go through and perfect every single part of your footprint, but having an overview of what is really important is vital for these companies. What we suggest to them is only going to become more popular and readily available, and all of our resources and calculations will be much more advanced in the future.”

The carbon-counting element of the course worked as both an aid and a challenge to students, Thomas says. 

‘It's one thing to calculate the carbon footprint of an enclosed item like a strawberry, but then calculate the carbon footprint of a chocolate chip cookie. You have to calculate the footprint of the sugar, flour and butter,” she says. “We definitely challenged our students and threw them in the deep end at the beginning of the semester, but they end up rising to the occasion and doing a lot of really cool work.”

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