Students Help Eden Mills Reduce its Carbon Footprint

Community achieves 75-per-cent carbon neutral mark

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By Stephanie Craig

Fourth-year environmental science students worked on the Eden Mills Going Carbon Neutral Project.

The community of Eden Mills has a lofty goal of “going carbon neutral,” but the small village east of Guelph is well on its way. With the help of environmental science students at the University of Guelph, the community has achieved a 22-per-cent decrease in emissions since 2007.

The Eden Mills Going Carbon Neutral Project started with local community members who wanted to make a positive environmental change. “People are more ready than the government recognizes,” says Charles Simon, a resident of Eden Mills and initiator of the project. “We can’t wait for government, educational institutions and businesses. There are things we can do today.”

The project’s goal is to produce no more carbon dioxide than the community’s trees can absorb. Tracking and analyzing the community’s efforts is crucial to proving the project’s success.

From the beginning of the project, fourth-year environmental science students in the “Project in Environmental Sciences” course have helped the community track its efforts. Over the duration of the project, School of Environmental Sciences professors Andy Gordon, Shelley Hunt, Paul Sibley and Naresh Thevathasan have been involved.

“We’re lucky,” says Simon. “Some of the best research is right here in Guelph. To start, we needed help calculating the carbon absorption rate in trees, which would be critical in evaluating our success. With the help of researchers and students, we have gotten some very valuable information on trees, soils and microclimate. It added precision to what we are doing.”

Fourth-year students Laura Alpi, Ian Herzog, Emily Hope, Tobias Jones and Monika Susz were in charge of calculating the community’s carbon footprint for 2011. Participating homes recorded hydro and propane bills as well as their household and travel emissions. The numbers are then collected and analyzed by the students every two years to calculate the community’s carbon footprint. The statistics are compared to numbers from previous years and national averages.

The first step was preparing the survey in fall 2011. The survey needs to be updated every year to refine the questions and data collected. Says Alpi: “We also needed a better online medium to perform the survey that allowed for residents to save their responses and to submit them later. The previous survey was also too extensive and at times difficult to understand, so significant revisions were required to determine what information was vital and to keep questions simple.”

The community also asked the students to do research on the Canadian average for CO2 emissions measured in the survey: land travel, air travel and homes. This data provided the residents and students with a more accurate basis to compare CO2 emissions. “New carbon coefficients were required for our calculations so our data would be accurate and relevant,” says Alpi. The Eden Mills team also wanted a national per capita carbon emission average that measured the same elements that the Eden Mills survey did, allowing for a fair comparison between the two. The results indicated that the net per capita emissions in the village were just slightly higher than half that of the national average in the three categories.

Nigel Gale, Janelle Trant, Tom Schiks, Jake L’Ecuyer, Chris Jackson and Orland Vilcinski were part of the student group that worked with the community in fall 2010 and early 2011. They were assigned to develop a project that could sequester the excess carbon that the village emitted. “After multiple meetings we decided that afforestation would be the most appropriate carbon sequestration tool,” says Gale. The group conducted a cost-benefit analysis for the potential afforestation project.

Working with Profs. Andy Gordon and Naresh Thevathasan, the students went on to publish a paper on their research. The article will appear in the winter 2013 edition of Studies by Undergraduate Researchers at Guelph. “Our paper is essentially a framework for potential afforestation projects in Eden Mills and southern Ontario that highlights project costs,” says Gale. “We propose possible planting schemes, which incorporate subsidization by non-profit and governmental organizations. The slam-dunk result of this work is that afforestation can meet the carbon sequestration requirements for the village at an affordable cost.”

Student involvement has become a key element to the project’s success. “The students are critical,” says Lee Wisener, a community member who works as a liaison with the most recent group of students. “They were helpful in administering the survey, collecting the data and then data analysis,” Wisener says. “We also work together to clean up some of the data. You can’t take all the data at face value. It is complex because there are different ways to measure CO2. We didn’t just want to capture the people who are making the biggest efforts. So we worked with them on how to maximize response rates.” Following the survey and analysis, the students will create a report, provide recommendations and give a presentation.

Alpi says the impact of the project is more than work experience to put on a resume. “Most of my work experiences have been with governmental organizations that complete initiatives because they were mandated from a more senior governmental body in order to achieve ‘bigger picture’ environmental objectives,” she says. “Working with a community group was fantastic because this initiative wasn’t government mandated. It really showcased what a dedicated group of residents can achieve on their own, going above and beyond governmental objectives.”

Gale emphasizes the significance of the project beyond the findings. “It’s great for students to get a chance to apply the theory we learn to worthwhile projects, while being an active participant in the community,” he says.

Released in November 2012, the students’ most recent survey indicated that the community’s efforts have made Eden Mills 75-per-cent carbon neutral. With each survey release, more communities are inspired by Eden Mills, and more than 20 neighborhoods are now implementing similar projects. “It’s a really good message to give to other people and other communities,” says Simon. “We are showing results. We can’t wait, so let’s try, and yes it is possible.”

Initiatives such as the Eden Mills Goes Carbon Neutral Project showcase the strength of partnerships between community groups and environmental scientists. As Gale explains, “It signifies that people are collectively ready to actively tackle our environmental problems.” Adds Alpi: “I’ve learned that everyday residents are powerful people, and they only need to unite and have dedicated individuals to really champion their efforts.”

To read more about the Eden Mills Going Carbon Neutral Project, visit www.goingcarbonneutral.ca.