Carbon emissions fell due to COVID-19. How can we keep them down?

A screenshot of 17 people on Zoom.

A screenshot of students and professors in UB's Carbon Reduction Challenge class, which has been meeting virtually since social distancing measures were implemented. Credit: Elizabeth Thomas

A UB class helps companies and organizations cut carbon footprints —with an eye toward post-pandemic life

Release Date: May 11, 2020

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Head shot of Ryan McPherson and Elizabeth Thomas, who teach the Carbon Reduction Challenge.
"Our partner organizations — and the entire world — have rapidly reduced their carbon footprints during the pandemic. We can learn from these changes to develop strategies to reduce our carbon footprint long-term."
Elizabeth Thomas, assistant professor of geology
University at Buffalo
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"Our lives have been upended, some of us have lost loved ones and the delicacy of our planet has been put on full display for all to see and feel. But this is also a time of great learning, adaptation and evolving."
Ryan McPherson, chief sustainability officer
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Carbon emissions have fallen around the world due to the novel coronavirus, and one University at Buffalo class is asking: How can society preserve some of this progress without harming the economy?

Students in UB’s Carbon Reduction Challenge course work in small groups to create proposals for local businesses and government agencies to reduce their carbon footprints.

When the pandemic reached Western New York mid-semester, the class turned much of its focus to helping partners retain unexpected carbon savings created as a result of social distancing.

Ideas include keeping telecommuting options in place after the pandemic for at least some workers; continuing to offer online options for press conferences so reporters can attend without driving; and turning down the heat and air conditioning — a measure some workplaces have implemented as buildings empty out due to COVID-19.

“Our partner organizations — and the entire world — have rapidly reduced their carbon footprints during the pandemic. We can learn from these changes to develop strategies to reduce our carbon footprint long-term, but that avoid negative economic impacts while also aiming to increase social justice and workforce diversity,” says Elizabeth Thomas, PhD, assistant professor of geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

Thomas is co-teaching the Carbon Reduction Challenge, which just wrapped up, with Ryan McPherson, chief sustainability officer at UB.

The course is offered each spring.

Partners this year included three companies that were connected with the class via the Western New York Sustainable Business Roundtable: Curbell Inc., Harmac Medical Products Inc., and Rich Products Corporation; and three local organizations: Erie County, the Williamsville Central School District, and the Buffalo branch of the New York State Department of Transportation.

One student group teamed up with each entity.

Students’ proposals for each partner varied, and companies and agencies won’t implement all of the ideas. But Thomas and McPherson expect that at least some recommendations will be deployed.

Many businesses have become more open to change due to COVID-19

With the pandemic disrupting daily life and routines, many businesses have discovered how adaptable they can be, McPherson says. He hopes this openness to change will continue as the world fights a second crucial battle against climate change.

“There is no doubt, we are living in strange and challenging times,” he says. “Our lives have been upended, some of us have lost loved ones and the delicacy of our planet has been put on full display for all to see and feel. But this is also a time of great learning, adaptation and evolving.”

Thomas notes that early in the semester, some partners pushed back when students brought up work-from-home policies. But now, companies are seeing that telecommuting can be successful, and they seem much more open to keeping such options in place long-term, she says.

In addition to helping organizations calculate carbon savings, students have helped their partners understand other benefits of policies that reduce emissions: Working from home provides more flexibility for employees with kids or with chronic illnesses. An online press conference option can allow more people to attend. And reducing heating and cooling saves not only energy, but money, too.

“I know it's a time of crisis, but I believe there's always something good taken out of any circumstance no matter how negative,” says Daniel Lussier, a senior in environmental geoscience. “This pandemic has presented our world a new opportunity to take a different path than the one we were on before. We can change the way we operate — we just need the will and courage to do such a thing. My hope is that we will enter a world more in tune with nature, and much more sustainable after this crisis is done.”

Ideas for today and beyond

Through the Carbon Reduction Challenge, Lussier and two other students worked with Curbell Inc., the parent company of Curbell Plastics and Curbell Medical, which manufacture performance plastics and hospital devices including pillow speakers.

Students’ suggestions included adjusting the thermostat to save energy; composting organic waste from dining areas; and continuing telecommuting through a wellness program that supports health and happiness by enabling office employees to work from home a set number of days per year.

The company is considering all of these ideas, and will definitely implement the suggestion to reduce heating and cooling, says Mark Shriver, director of safety and environmental affairs for Curbell.

“Curbell’s sustainability programs have been around a long time,” he says. “When you get to a certain point in your journey, all the ‘low-hanging fruit’ is gone. It becomes more and more difficult to progress. The students did a nice job of assessing our operations, scrutinizing the data, learning our culture and coming up with ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversations, brainstorming sessions and seeing this team work.”

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Charlotte Hsu
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chsu22@buffalo.edu
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