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Air travel for university business will include a Climate Impact Offset fee as part of Penn's Climate Sustainability Action Plan. Credit: Nicholas Fernandez

Penn has started purchasing carbon offsets for its air travel emissions in an effort to advance the Climate and Sustainability Action Plan and reach 100% carbon neutrality by 2042. 

For the first time, flights on University business will include a Climate Impact Offset fee which will be charged to the relevant school or center. The fees will be collected in a Travel Sustainability Fund.

The Air Travel Sustainability project is managed by Penn Sustainability and Penn Procurement Services. An Air Travel Offset Selection Committee — which was composed of key staff and faculty with pertinent experience — took charge of selecting and vetting the offset project. 

Sustainability Director Nina Morris said that the committee evaluated projects according to the Carbon Markets and Offsets Guidance and institutional guidelines. 

“The committee goes a little bit deeper to make sure we feel confident in the selection of the project,” Morris said.

Benjamin Pierce, a professor of computer and information science, was a member of the selection committee. Pierce said that the issue of air travel carbon offsets was first raised five years ago. Air travel by faculty, staff, and students generate five to ten percent of the university’s carbon emissions.

Chief Procurement Officer Mark Mills formed a committee to discuss the Climate Impact Offset process, which would allow Penn to compensate for the amount of jet fuel burned in flights by paying for the elimination of greenhouse gases.

After a pilot version of the CLIO process was launched in July 2021, the Air Travel Working Group chose a specific offset project for Penn to fund: an absorption column, installed in an adipic acid plant in Florida, that destroys up to 98% of the facility’s nitrous oxide emissions. The actual purchase was made a couple of weeks ago.

“It’s been a long road,” Pierce said. 

According to Morris, Penn is the only institution in the Ivy League with a university-wide air travel carbon offset program. She emphasized the importance of collaborating with peer institutions to determine the selection of high-quality projects, specifically citing Duke University, the University of Edinburgh, and UCLA as good models of carbon offset programs.  

“One of the best things about working in higher education is that we can utilize our peers as knowledge to develop programs here,” Morris said. “Then we hope to share that back to the larger community.”

One of the committee’s goals going forward is to prioritize local offset projects, allowing Penn to increase investment in the Philadelphia community. 

Pierce said that the purchase is part of a broader move towards sustainability across campus, including a faculty resolution to examine personal climate impacts and efforts to expand climate-related course offerings and majors. 

“Penn overall is in the middle of a massive reorientation toward the challenge of climate change,” Pierce said. 

Penn announced the decision to purchase offsets for university-sponsored flights in 2020. In response to the announcement, Fossil Free Penn recognized the initiative as a step in the right direction but continued advocating for divestment from fossil fuels as a more effective response to climate change.

Shriya Karam, Engineering senior, took an "Advanced Transportation" seminar last year that addressed air travel sustainability. Her project for the course looked into ways to quantify the benefits of air travel carbon offsets and provided recommendations for how the program could be implemented at Penn. She identified how localized offset projects can positively impact education and job creation in the immediate Philadelphia area. 

“The best case is we reduce air travel as much as possible,” Karam said. “But if we’re not able to do that, then offsetting is definitely a step in the right direction.”

Morris also said that the carbon offset purchase is a short-term measure, not a long-term solution. 

“We hope that the aviation industry decarbonizes and then this will become irrelevant,” Morris said. “But until then, I think it’s an important step to demonstrate that whatever we can do to address the climate crisis, we’re willing to consider.”