Rallying the Troops
A new series of environmental challenges, led by Carbonrally, is pitting universities against one another in an ongoing online competition to see which can be the most "green."
- By Bridget McCrea
What happens when you cross a master's degree from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University with an MBA and add in the desire to help organizations lessen their negative impact on Mother Nature? You get Jason Karas, one of those rare college graduates who followed through with a joint degree program and came out knowledgeable about the environment and business.
It would take 10 years for the two degrees to converge in the "real world," where Karas now serves as a "chief rallier" for Cambridge, MA-based Carbonrally, an online community dedicated to climate change and the reduction of CO₂ emissions. Through a series of competitive challenges, 31,363 people have reduced CO₂ emissions by 4,489 tons.
Some of those participants are students at Boston University, which developed a campus-wide, 20-team rally for students, alumni, and faculty. Those teams are pitted against one another to see which can be "greener." Carbonrally creates the environmental challenges and keeps score by translating green actions into pounds of carbon dioxide averted. Through competitive game-play, participants earn points for canceling unnecessary catalog subscriptions, unplugging their computers every night for a month, and snuffing out drafts in their apartments.
Technology plays a key role in the competition. All challenges are posted and tracked via the Carbonrally Web site, while participants use social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to publicize their achievements and court new team members. BU's sustainability director, Dennis Carlberg, said the competition blends well with the school's sustainability program, which was put into place in January 2009.
"We've been building the program over the last year, with a big part of our efforts focused on how to get increased awareness of environmental sustainability across the campus," said Carlberg, who, upon turning to the Web for inspiration, discovered that many institutions were using a system of pledges to incite students, faculty and staff to think green.
As part of BU's pledge strategy, Carlberg said the school asked participants what they could be doing to increase energy efficiency and reduce water usage, and came up with about 40 different actions that could be taken. The 40 points were boiled down to 10, with one being rolled out per month since September 2009. The campaign is publicized via posters on campus and through the institution's Web site.
The problem, remarked Carlberg, is that the pledge system comprises a variety of actions that span several metrics and aren't "normalized across the various sustainability issues that we were concerned with." In search of a more streamlined process that included real metrics and accurate results, Carlberg decided to test out Carbonrally's online competitions.
"We liked it because it focused on one metric: CO₂ reduction," he explained. The online game also blended well with BU's overall goal of amplifying the buzz on campus around environmental sustainability. Carlberg said BU holds month-long CO₂ reduction competitions, with awards given out at the end of each 30-day period. "This month we're going to throw a burrito party for the school [within the BU system] that has the highest per-capita participation rate," Carlberg said.
So far, Carlberg said, about 600 BU students, faculty and alumni have signed up to participate in the challenges. The university's recruitment efforts include visits to the student union gatherings, where individuals sign up for the challenge. Carlberg said online efforts like e-mail blasts, blogs and social networking connections also go a long way in attracting new participants.
Karas said BU is just one of about 100 colleges that are using his brainchild to help reduce their carbon footprints. He's also created a few custom-built campaigns, including one that pitted Syracuse University against Notre Dame via an NBC Sports-publicized challenge. "NBC wanted to bring these two schools together into an energy-savings battle," Karas explained.
About 5,000 students signed up for the challenge, which took place in November 2008, and was part of NBC's "Green Your Routine" campaign. In total, the personal energy-savings challenge eliminated 85 tons of CO₂ from the atmosphere--a number that's "the same as switching-off electricity in about 80 homes for an entire month," said Karas.
Karas credited the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment with helping to raise awareness of CO₂ reduction, and the impact that schools, students, and faculty have on the environment. The initiative addresses "global climate disruption, and how colleges and universities can help to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions from specified campus operations," according to the ACUPCC Web site.
"Several hundred colleges signed up for the PCC, which is focused on policies like what temperature should the building be heated at, the need for new thermostats, and the deployment of green-building technology," said Karas, who said he sees centralized policies and technologies as the first step to fulfilling the "green" commitment. The second step, he explained, will find campuses realizing the "massive impact they can have by engaging thousands of people in small changes in behavior."
Getting people to make those changes won't be easy, nor will it happen overnight. But as universities like BU, Syracuse, and Notre Dame have already discovered, the transformation will be facilitated through friendly competition and a little online peer pressure. "We need people to make personal commitments in public and/or on the Internet in front of all of their friends," said Karas. "That's a very powerful behavior modification force."