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How will Vanderbilt’s carbon footprint be calculated?

Posted by on Saturday, April 4, 2009 in News.

[Originally published 4/2/2009 on myVU]

Several weeks ago, Vanderbilt announced its plans to calculate the university’s carbon footprint. The inventory will determine the amount of the six greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere that make up Vanderbilt’s carbon footprint in an average year.  This article is the fourth in a series discussing Vanderbilt’s carbon footprint. But how exactly is this carbon footprint going to be calculated?

Baseline Determination

The following factors were used to determine Vanderbilt’s first greenhouse gas emissions inventory, or baseline calculation.  The initial baseline emissions determination is critical, as it provides a blueprint for the development of future mitigation strategies and goals.  Moreover, the baseline serves as a standard by which the University’s progress can be measured in years to come.

Time frame: An average amount of emissions per year will be determined using data from calendar years 2005-2007.

Measurement units: All volumes of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere are converted into a common unit of measure known as metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (MTCO2E).  The sum of the volume of all gases is the carbon footprint.

Calculation method: The greenhouse gas calculations will be made using the Clean Air – Cool Planet Campus Carbon Calculator, the calculator most commonly used by universities who are measuring their greenhouse gas emissions.

Spatial boundary: Emissions from activities on the “core” 330 acres of Vanderbilt University property will be captured in the inventory.  This includes all academic, research, residential and patient care areas; however, off-site buildings and clinics will not be included.

Greenhouse gas emissions sources are typically divided into three different categories, all of which will be incorporated in Vanderbilt’s baseline inventory:

Scope 1

Direct emissions from sources owned or controlled by the institution
Vanderbilt example: Emissions from coal and natural gas combustion in the campus power plant and from the use of University-owned vehicles

Scope 2
Indirect emissions from purchased electricity that is consumed by equipment or operations owned or controlled by the institution
Vanderbilt example: Electricity purchased by Vanderbilt from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) via Nashville Electric Service (NES)

Scope 3
Indirect emissions from all other sources that occur as a result of the institution’s activities which are not owned or operated by the institution.
Vanderbilt example: Employee travel, commuting, solid and hazardous waste disposal

Reporting the Baseline Greenhouse Gas Inventory

Vanderbilt’s baseline greenhouse gas inventory will be released on Earth Day, April 22, 2009 and will be reported in numerous ways:
•    Total emissions for academic/research and patient care areas
•    Emissions per gross square foot of space
•    Emissions per full-time student, and by campus population (faculty + staff + students)
•    Emissions per research dollar

“Knowing how much greenhouse gas is emitted per person, per square foot of building space, or per research dollar here at Vanderbilt is the best way for us to make a true ‘apples-to-apples’ comparison of our greenhouse gas emissions in the years to come,” said Steve Gild, environmental management systems coordinator in the Sustainability and Environmental Management Office.

Interpretation of the Inventory

Several factors make Vanderbilt’s baseline inventory unique and should be considered when interpreting the results, such as:
•    Regional variations in the way local electricity suppliers generate their electricity;
•    Inclusion of research activities;
•    Inclusion of patient care activities;
•    Inclusion of Scope 3 activities;
•    Averaging over three years; and
•    Differences in calculation methodologies among different universities.

When the University’s baseline greenhouse gas report is released, it will include comparisons to similar institutions.  However, “Direct comparisons between universities will prove to be difficult due to each entity’s distinctive characteristics,” said Judson Newbern, deputy vice chancellor for Facilities and Environmental Affairs.  “Vanderbilt is a complex place comprised of a very diverse medical center and robust academic programs; as such, the mix of variables at each campus dictates that the only standard to which we can truly compare ourselves is our own baseline.”

Vanderbilt’s energy consumption is the largest contributing factor in our greenhouse gas emissions.  If you would like more information how to conserve energy at Vanderbilt, visit the ThinkOne Web site at

To read more about Vanderbilt’s greenhouse gas emissions and to follow progress of the development of the carbon footprint, please visit

Read other articles in the series:
VU to calculate carbon footprint
So what is a carbon footprint and why is Vanderbilt calculating one?
What is climate change and why should I care about it?

Contact: Andrea George,

Scope definitions from the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).

Image adapted from: Burtis, B., & Watt, I. (2008). Getting to Zero: Defining Corporate Neutrality. Clean Air – Cool Planet.


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