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Farming Carbon: How the Pinhead Institute is Clearing the Air in Telluride

Photo by Alec Jacobson
Photo by Alec Jacobson

 

Telluride, like ski towns everywhere, is climate dependent and, surrounded by so much spectacular nature, it’s easy to imagine that we are an eco-friendly fairy camp that can do no wrong. But, when we put pencil to paper, we discovered that Telluride’s per capita carbon footprint is twice the national average: 33 metric tons of carbon pollution (mtCO2) per person each year. And this is the story in many other mountain towns. Aspen, for example, has been working to knock down their footprint from a 2004 baseline of more than 50 mtCO2 per person.

But mountain towns are not fundamentally predisposed to having huge carbon footprints. So, we, at the Pinhead Climate Institute, have recently joined local peer institutions to add our expertise into the mix to take an honest look at the size of our climate impact and commit to making some measurable changes. We all know that the first step in addressing a problem is acknowledging the problem.  (Learn about Telluride’s long road to reducing its carbon footprint.)

According to the Telluride regional greenhouse gas inventory, the two largest tranches of our community’s emissions are electricity and natural gas consumption to power our homes and commercial buildings (45%) and transportation fuels (25%). Changing the carbon footprint of our electricity consumption will require significant policy change with our power provider, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, and reducing natural gas consumption is, generally, the most challenging behavior to address by with a technological change. We hope to tackle those challenges over time, but, at the Pinhead Climate Institute, we saw transportation fuels as the obvious starting point for real emission reductions in the near-term. We were looking for early-stage winners to make significant reductions to rally community support for more complicated challenges in the future.

 

A summary of emissions in San Miguel and Ouray counties prepared by <a href="http://ecoactionpartners.org">EcoAction Partners</a>.
A summary of emissions in San Miguel and Ouray counties prepared by EcoAction Partners.

 

To change the carbon footprint of Telluride’s transportation fuels (gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel) we needed to either identify viable non-polluting solutions that make economic sense or match each ton of carbon pollution with an equal ton of carbon removal from the atmosphere. While some individuals in our community can – and have – purchased electric cars, we quickly realized that such a capital-intensive expenditure is not an option for our public transit fleet: economically viable electric buses capable of navigating our narrow ice-covered streets don’t yet exist. Additionally, the slice of the pie chart that accounts for the emissions from our airport cannot be solved (yet) with zero emissions airplanes.

So, we built a local marketplace for reputable, Colorado-based carbon offsets so that we can take action and remove carbon from the atmosphere while we wait for the next generations of transportation technology.

You may ask, how does the offset program work? The key is to verify that purchasing an offset actually supports an action that actively removes carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere. Such actions must pass through the scrutiny of a carbon offset registry and a third-party verifier – no easy task!

In our case, Pinhead purchased more than 7,000 tons of carbon offsets from Dallas May, a conservation-minded rancher who owns a 16,000 acre ranch in Lamar, CO. May has signed a 100-year agreement — brokered by Ducks Unlimited and Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust — to keep his family’s ranch intact and managed to build, rather than deplete, soil carbon stocks. The May family will continue to run cattle on their land, but they will meticulously manage grazing practices to cultivate native grasses. They agree to keep their soil “sod side up” (not tilling it into crops which would release carbon rather than sequester it), and to carefully track and monitor these activities. Every ton of carbon that is verifiably sequestered in the May’s soil through this system can then be sold as a carbon credit after verification and discounting. This adds a new component to the May’s business: after generations of farming cows, they have now deliberately started to farm carbon too.

We bought our 7,000 offsets at $9.50 per ton of carbon and we sell them for $15 per ton (or at face value for those of you considering purchases of more than 1,000 tons), using the $5.50 margin on smaller volume sales to run climate education programs for children in our region of rural Colorado. Price transparency is critically important for our Telluride Values project so that we can jumpstart regional and national carbon pricing program.

Telluride’s public busses, the Galloping Goose Fleet, are now entirely offset with agriculture-based credits and we have also worked with Telluride Regional Airport to sell offsets to everyone who flies in. Additionally, we are working with Mountainfilm Festival and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival to help our loyal visitors and Festivarians reduce the atmospheric impact of their festival attendance. And every other day of the year, offsets can be purchased through the Pinhead Institute website by anyone else looking to counteract their flights or other transportation.

So how can you use these offsets, you might ask? Here’s an example, if I fly on a roundtrip commercial flight from Telluride to New York City, my carbon footprint is approximately one ton of CO2 emissions. I can then purchase one ton of emissions offsets for $15 and have a net neutral visit with my grandmother on her 97th birthday. Dallas May’s carbon removal benefits (carbon sequestration) funded by my $15 equal the emissions associate with my trip to grandma’s house. There is a net zero emission of long-term carbon pollution in the Earth’s atmosphere – yes, it is really that simple.

There are numerous winners in this business relationship: there are zero net emissions to the atmosphere, the rancher in eastern Colorado can continue ranching while receiving benefits from the carbon offset revenue, Ducks Unlimited protects critical wetlands and duck habitat, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust helps to protect a working ranch from fragmentation, children in rural western Colorado receive supplemental science education from Pinhead, and the carbon footprint of one resident [me] is decreased. To top it off, in Telluride we have begun to establish a price signal on carbon which is something that the federal government hasn’t been able to accomplish.

From there, we go back to where we began, applying the annual carbon offsets to Telluride’s greenhouse gas inventory reducing per capita emissions. Carbon accounting utilizes the same principles as economic accounting, with debits and credit. Carbon offsets are provided as credits that reduce our net carbon footprint similar to carbon sequestration activities by trees and healthy soils. As a country we have performed this exercise annually since 1992 in the National Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks and now we are doing it in Telluride!

Carbon offsets are one tool that we realized could be used to quickly reduce our community’s carbon footprint. There are many more strategies and some viable options for direct pollution reductions.

Next up, we are working with our rural power cooperative to demand 100 percent renewable electricity which will zero-out the carbon footprint of our electricity consumption. In the future. we will also gently address the challenging discussions of reducing the natural gas heating demands of vacant second homes. We plan to press local planning departments for passive solar building requirements for houses that have large structural and carbon footprints.

The State of California has successfully decoupled carbon pollution from economic growth and I am confident that mountain towns can take aggressive climate actions as well. It’s going to take serious strategic actions and significant Drawdown efforts; these near-term actions are much less expensive than the future costs associated with inaction. If we kick the can down the road, there is still a trashy can in the road – it’s time to clean up our atmospheric trash and begin decarbonizing the atmosphere before it’s too late. Through our actions today we have the power to preserve a few epic powder days for our grandkids.

By Adam Chambers

Dr. Adam Chambers is a scientist who splits his time between Portland, Ore. and Telluride. In Telluride, he works closely with the Pinhead Climate Institute to educate young scientists and implement town-level climate actions that also encourage rural economic development. Over the past two decades Dr. Chambers’ project work has focused on the applied sciences and reducing atmospheric pollutants (air pollutants and greenhouse gases). He is currently working to implement conservation measures on managed agricultural lands that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance carbon sequestration, providing an emerging carbon market opportunity for US landowners and agricultural producers. He received his Doctorate from the Technical University of Vienna (Austria), Master of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and his B.Sc. from Murray State University in Kentucky. NOTE: Dr. Chambers performs his work with PCI on a voluntary basis and without compensation.