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  • Audra Davidson

Global Change Starts Here: Undergraduate Students Design Plans to Cut Corporate Carbon Emissions

From increased wildlife presence to cleaner air in cities across the world, the environmental impacts of Covid-19 have captured global headlines. Worldwide shelter-in-place orders reduced global CO­2 emissions by an estimated 17% in early April. But if we are to stabilize climate in line with internationally agreed targets, net emissions must be reduced by roughly 50% by 2050. In this past spring’s Energy, Environment, and Society class at Georgia Tech, students were charged with significantly reducing the carbon footprint of large organizations by millions of pounds of CO­2 while delivering cost savings in the process.

Since 2013, students in the course have participated in a nationally recognized 12-week carbon reduction challenge. Led by climate experts Kim Cobb, Georgia Power Chair ADVANCE Professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and the Director of the Global Change Program, and Jairo Garcia, a lecturer in the School of City & Regional Planning, students spend the semester learning about climate change, carbon emissions, and climate policy through guest lectures and lively discussions.

Throughout the course, students are challenged to create business proposals for partnering organizations that will save money while reducing carbon footprints. Top proposals are selected based on expert and peer rankings of the final proposal, and the winning team is rewarded with a cash prize and, when it is safe to do so, a trip to Washington, D.C. to discuss their findings with policymakers.

“There are so many ways to reduce carbon emissions that some people don’t even realize,” explains Perrine Kemerait, a third-year student in the course. Kemerait’s group noticed the piles of furniture that Georgia Tech students tend to discard as they leave campus for the summer.

To reduce the amount of neglected furniture, Kemerait and her fellow group members proposed a partnership between Georgia Tech Student Housing and Habitat for Humanity. Through social media marketing and strategically placed donation centers, students could be encouraged to donate their furniture to Habitat for Humanity at the end of the year, preventing over 120,000 pounds of projected annual CO2 emissions.

Other groups cut the carbon footprint of iconic Atlanta-area Waffle House restaurants by targeting a major source of emissions: lighting. Targeting over 250 restaurants, the Waffle House group suggested the replacement of inefficient parking lot lightbulbs with high efficiency LED bulbs. The simple switch is calculated to save the corporation over $20,000 annually, and to reduce carbon emissions by over 161,000 pounds a year. The retrofit is already underway for all Atlanta-area sites.

The overall winning team worked with Catholic Relief Services, a non-profit organization that uses a large fleet of vehicles to deliver supplies to communities in need around the world. By using more fuel-efficient vehicles and reducing idle time, students estimate that Catholic Relief Services would save about $250,000 and 4.6 million pounds of CO2 per year — equivalent to the annual energy usage of over 200 average homes. After proposing this plan to Catholic Relief Services leadership team, group member Michelle Babcock shares that the non-profit plans to implement the student-driven recommendations within the next two to three years.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic presented challenges to the students in this past semester’s Energy, Environment, and Society class, Cobb says they still came out on top. “It’s really a testament to their tenacity, and their passion,” she notes. “Even under the incredible challenges brought by the pandemic … the students really carried through with their project plans towards an amazing set of final presentations and proposals for their stakeholders.”

Originally published on the College of Sciences website.

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