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Stevens Forward: Addressing the economics of being carbon neutral

Stevens Forward is a local volunteer civic organization with a mission to create a brighter future for all residents of the Stevens County community. Stevens Forward consists of local citizens interested in learning about and discussing the economic, cultural, social and educational issues that affect the county.

Setting out goals for the organization, the volunteers developed a destiny statement for the county: "Stevens County will be the model community in rural Minnesota, recognized for our progressive development and innovations in renewable energy, agriculture, business and education. We will achieve this by building upon intellectual and social capital already present in the county and by attracting new and diverse talent that will drive our economy and increase our population."

Out of that destiny statement, 14 destiny drivers or specific areas of activity evolved. This article is about one of those destiny drivers, working to make Stevens County carbon neutral by 2015.

We all have ownership and responsibility in maintaining sustainable systems for enhancing our quality of life. One of the biggest problems facing society is global climate change being caused by energy related greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2). Visual evidence for the impacts of climate change is referred to as "weather whiplash" by Paul Douglas, meteorologist in the Twin Cities. Climate change can be thought of as a run of "worse-than-usual" weather with both droughts and floods at the same time in the same region. North America has seen the world's sharpest increase in the number of natural catastrophes during the past 32 years, a trend that in some respects is linked to man-made global warming.

The effects of climate change are expected to bring longer and more frequent droughts, more frequent tornadoes, more severe hailstorms, thunderstorms and floods, stronger straight-line winds, and more destructive weather in general. Of importance to agriculture, severe thunderstorms are a larger fraction of our rainfall events that cause excessive soil erosion and damaging flash floods.

The question is what can be done about climate change? The answer lies in the statement "we must measure before we can manage." We must have some quantitative measure of what we are trying to manage so we can determine if our actions resulted in improvement of the situation, in this case decreasing CO2 emissions. The measure used in this work is called a carbon footprint.

A carbon footprint is a "quantitative measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide." It is meant to be useful to conceptualize and quantify the personal or county impact in contributing to CO2 emissions and global warming. Calculating the carbon footprint is an attempt to find out how much carbon dioxide is released by the things we do every day. Knowing our carbon footprint will help complete a comprehensive GHG inventory, provide a long-term inventory management plan and equip us with the tools to manage the inventory process going forward. Understanding our carbon footprint will also enable us to reduce the economic and environmental impact of fossil fuels for energy production. Saving energy means saving money. The cost savings can be substantial.

The approach that evolved for calculating the carbon footprint of Stevens County resulted in identifying five major categories of energy consumption contributing to the carbon footprint. These five categories are transportation energy, home energy, waste and recycling, food production and processing, and agricultural production.

The present effort is focusing on the first four categories for Stevens County leaving agricultural production for a later effort due to its inherent complexities. Thus we are making progress in the last 15 months in these four categories utilizing intellectual capital of students from the University of Minnesota, Morris for literature and web searches, developing calculation methods, and locating data and entering it into spreadsheets.

Jolee Henkel, a student at UMM, is currently working for Stevens Forward on home energy and waste and recycling. Henkel is from Maynard, Minn., majoring in biology and pre-veterinary medicine, and started working with Stevens Forward in October of 2011. Her work experience with Stevens Forward has provided an opportunity to learn what it takes to calculate and reduce carbon emissions. There is a lot of research involved which then leads to a lot of prep work before you reach a useful final product and through this process she has learned a lot.

Henkel has been conducting some online research and creating spreadsheets with the collected data. There are two spreadsheets per category: one for the county's emissions and one that will allow a citizen to fill out to find their own emissions.

Category 3, waste and recycling, involved the contacting of Stevens County Environmental Services to get the amounts of each category of waste/recycling that the county produces. With this data from the county we were able to create a spreadsheet with the numbers and then find the emissions constants from the internet to add to the spreadsheet as well.

For category 4, food production and processing, we are still working on how we should calculate this. We have some ideas that we are working on to find the best one, but there are many factors to take into consideration that this is proving to be a difficult task.

This effort is still a work in progress and we are open to your ideas, comments and suggestions on how this effort may help the community adjust to economic impacts of climate change. Feel free to contact Stevens Forward at (320) 585-6700 or Don Reicosky via e-mail: