How to calculate the carbon footprint? A conversation with dr hab. Wojciech Pokora, prof. UG
Published On: 2023/12/13
– In order to reduce the carbon footprint and strive for sustainability, it is first necessary to define the baseline. Data is needed on how large a carbon footprint we generate is – says Dr Hab. Wojciech Pokora, prof. of the UG. A researcher from the Laboratory of Plant Biotechnology at the Faculty of Biology, University of Gdańsk, is conducting research on the development of a tool to evaluate the carbon footprint generated during teaching at the University of Gdańsk as part of the reSEArchu-EU (Reinforcing sustainable actions, resilience, cooperation and harmonisation across and by the SEA-EU Alliance) project.
Szymon Gronowski: The aim of the reSEArch-EU project is to develop an alliance of SEA-EU coastal universities in the context of research, education and cooperation with the environment. As part of the project, you are conducting research towards developing a tool to evaluate the carbon footprint generated during teaching at the University of Gdansk. Where did the idea to develop such a tool come from?
Dr. Wojciech Pokora, prof. of the UG: The idea to introduce such a tool at the University of Gdansk came from the Vice-Chancellor Sylwia Mrozowska, while indirectly it is the result of our activities within SEA-EU. In spring 2022, I had the pleasure of taking part in the Transformation Lab, which took place at the friendly University of Brest, and there we had the opportunity to learn about ways in which academic units and local entrepreneurs can work together. One of the very important areas we highlighted was precisely how to work in the spirit of sustainability and the participation of scientific units in assisting local producers and entrepreneurs to reduce their carbon footprint. We would, of course, like to transfer this to our area to some extent. We want to start with what is typical of any university, namely didactics. In SEA-EU 2.0, green transformation and sustainability are among the main goals of university cooperation, so I believe we fit in with the latest trends. We will also have the opportunity to learn from the experiences of the other alliance partners or share our experiences in this area with them.
Have any attempts been made at the University of Gdansk to introduce similar solutions before? I know that the implementation of a French tool for carbon footprint evaluation was under consideration. But why did you opt for a completely original solution?
We would like to build to some extent on the very model that has been developed in France. However, we need to take into account the specifics of our university. Currently available tools designed for analysis are at the level of a university campus or an entire department, while our aim is to bring the tool down to even individual students level or student groups. We want to show the student that their learning activity generates a specific, defined carbon footprint. I think this is much more motivating for sustainability than getting information on what carbon footprint an entire university campus generates. It is something far more abstract which has less impact on the imagination. In our vision it would be more personalised.
You mentioned personalisation. You can find calculators on the internet that measure the carbon footprint. Various companies also offer paid services in this area. Why, in this case, even though there are already similar solutions on the market, is it worth considering the development of a tool specifically for the generally understood teaching sector?
Simply put: because there is no such tool designed specifically for didactics. The free calculators available are targeted at two areas. Firstly, they are designed for the average household user. There you can introduce activities typical of our everyday life: driving a car, shopping, household habits. At the other extreme, we have typical industrial production, where the final industrial product is created. We need to analyse what raw materials we have, how they were obtained, what their processing costs are and how this translates into the final product. In the case of didactics, it is more complicated because, de facto , we do not have a physical product that we can parameterise, that we will produce in a specific number over a given season, with a specific weight and so on. It’s a bit more complex than that, so we would like to create a tool that is specifically designed for teaching. One of the aims of this work is to use it at the university, but we also intend to use it in primary and secondary schools. We want this tool to be of equal scientific and didactic value. It seems that, if such a tool were made available to students, the opportunity to count their own carbon footprint generated in the course of a single lesson would be much more motivating for them to take action or change their habits than a typical lecture or talk. We have a lot of educational units in the country, so I think the scope for sharing such a tool would be quite large.
The project ‘Evaluation of the carbon footprint generated during teaching at UG’ involves tasks undertaken over a period of forty-eight months. What are the assumptions behind this project? How does it take into account the specificity of an institution like the University of Gdansk? What are the specific objectives of this project?
The vast majority of the people who will be involved in this project are academically and didactically active, participating in this project is an additional activity for them, which is why we have planned quite a long lead time. I also have some experience in designing IT tools and I know that creating such a tool, testing it and releasing it ‘on the market’ is not a job that can be done in a month or two. This takes time. As part of the project, we would like to start by selecting a model and carrying out an analysis. To begin with, it is necessary to determine whether we will work at the level of the entire campus, departments, chairs or individual types of classes. We would need to consider – on a pilot basis – the whole spectrum of units at our university with quite extremely different profiles. We believe that we should also bet on collaboration with the social sciences, as a large part of this project would involve studying the social behaviour of those who are involved in the teaching process: teachers and students. IT support is, of course, also important. To begin with, people from selected units should be trained in the use of existing IT tools in such a way that we can develop our own tool based on the experience we have gained. It is important to examine what respondents should be asked – and, subsequently, what parameters should be entered into the model. The next stage of the project would be to create such a model with the help of which a calculation could be made after completing a relatively simple questionnaire. We would see how this works on the example of a few selected units. Then, the next step would be to extend this to all units of the University of Gdansk. Once we have verified that this model works at university level, we can share this tool with other research units and schools. It’s not about making a commercial tool. This would be more of an image element of promoting teaching at our university.
Ultimately, would this tool be open to everyone?
I think so. Ultimately, we would like this tool to be available to the general public in the form of an app or a calculator available on the website, so that anyone involved in the teaching process can calculate the carbon footprint of a given activity for themselves. I assume that you will be able to do this on your own at home, with a teacher in class, or as part of a seminar or lecture class at a university.
Teaching activities are often very diverse, as you have also mentioned, both in terms of subject matter and form, and therefore also in the use of energy, lighting or the use of reagents in laboratories, for example. The project has proposed a model that takes these realities into account. Can you describe it using an academic lecture as an example and explain what parameters are necessary to carry out a carbon footprint evaluation?
In the proposed model, we have assumed that the types of classes should be unified as much as possible and we have proposed five classes typical of a university, including the lecture you mentioned, but also classes of a seminar and auditorium nature. They are quite similar to each other, whereas due to the different way they are conducted in each unit, I think it would be good to separate them. The greatest complexity would be in the laboratory and field exercises we have in our units. The laboratory exercises are quite strongly differentiated. The requirements are different in classes where you only work with a microscope, and different when there is a specific experiment to be performed and you need to use specialised apparatus. While this is not a large percentage of occupations, it can generate a significant carbon footprint. Field activities are also specific.
We will be interacting with a parallel project that aims to analyse this type of carbon footprint in scientific activities. This is a more complex and varied part. The didactics in this respect seem simpler, but some elements are the same. Returning to the academic lecture, let us assume that we define the group as 50-100 people. We would have to take into account the size of the room in which such a lecture takes place, the cost of heating, the cost of air conditioning, lighting. I don’t think a student filling out such a questionnaire would be able to count how many light bulbs are hanging from the ceiling, whereas, we know that there should be a certain level of lighting, for example 40-50 watts per square metre. We would then only take into account the area of the lecture theatre and the type of lighting. Additional parameters to be taken into account include class time, use of electronic equipment: computers, multimedia boards.
What additional elements might need to be verified in order to carry out such an evaluation?
Other aspects of lecturing would also need to be taken into account: transport to class and the number of lectures in a block that students have to get to and back from. There is one more thing we would like to point out in our project. The teaching process is not just a lecture that lasts for the ninety minutes the lecturer spends with the students. The cost of preparing for such classes must also be taken into account. The lecturer’s time is spent developing materials, preparing presentations, but also evaluating student performance. We need to prepare tests, exams and then test them. In terms of an hour of lecture and one participant, these are probably not high carbon costs, but I think they should be taken into account. These elements are missing from the currently available calculators. We also want to compare classes taught onsite and online. The prevailing thinking is that online classes are green, due to the lack of need to commute and the ability to work from home. On the other hand, it is important to remember that computer use and data transfer itself also generates a carbon footprint. The question arises as to whether it is better, from this perspective, when we have a group of a hundred students arriving in the auditorium by public transport, have one computer and one projector on, or whether we generate a greater ‘carbon’ cost when all the students and tutors are at home, have their computers on and have a transfer of huge amounts of data between units. It seems to me that the answer to this question is not at all clear-cut and that the online version of teaching will not always be beneficial from a carbon footprint point of view. Another thing that should be noted is the issue of independent work by students and teachers. The syllabuses record hours of direct work with the teacher, but we also have hours of independent work. Students’ independent work, learning, preparing for classes is also an important part of didactics and we would like to know something about it too. For example: do students study at their desks with one light on, or do they have to have all the lights in the whole room on? Do they use a computer or just a mobile phone? How do they use the content that is available online? These are things that would be a unique feature of our project.
What benefits would the implementation of such a tool bring to the University of Gdansk, not only from the point of view of the university as an institution, but also from the point of view of students, researchers and the environment?
In the long term, we would like to do more for the planet. This is the primary objective. In order to reduce the carbon footprint and move towards sustainability, it is first necessary to define the baseline. Data is needed on how large the carbon footprint we generate is in terms of teaching across the university and individual units. Then we can take further action. I think this is a very important part of building the image of the university. For young people, climate change issues are very important. This can be seen in industrial production. Many companies treat ‘being eco’ as a bargaining chip in their offer. I think that we, as an entity that to some extent also operates in the market, are also working to ensure that young people want to choose our university. In addition to the scientific and educational offer, we can show that we are a sustainable university that wants to generate the smallest possible carbon footprint. This may convince some people to study at our university. We can show that we are the greenest university in the region. I think we could, at least locally, be at the forefront of implementing this type of changes. Ultimately, once we know what carbon footprint we generate, we want to take action to reduce it. People who are involved in the teaching process should be directly involved in this process as well. Being able to count one’s carbon footprint could motivate students to make the most of their teaching time. Of course, we cannot tell students: ladies and gentlemen, classes with you generate such a large carbon footprint that we have to give them up, from today you only get a book and you have to learn from it yourself. But if students know that by coming to a particular type of activity, their participation generates a specific carbon footprint, then we can use this to some extent as a motivating factor. We can show students that since we are generating a carbon footprint anyway, it is worth making the most of this class time. Not sitting on a mobile phone and transferring data from social networks, but taking an active part in what is happening during the lecture. I hope that another long-term outcome of the project will be to secure additional funding for green transformation and to take concrete steps to build an even more sustainable and even greener university.
I see two levels of engagement here: an individual level, where students will in the future be able to enter data themselves into a calculator and calculate the carbon footprint generated by a specific learning activity at the university, and a ‘global’ level, where the university will be able to check these results at full scale, which will also be useful for research, the conclusions of which can be turned into concrete solutions.
Yes, among other things. Looking at it globally, as has been done in some universities, of course, the easiest solution is to consider the carbon footprint for the whole campus, count how much heat we used, how much electricity we used, how much water we used, multiply that by the number of students. We would like to do this from the other side, ‘from below’. We have tools that integrate data from teaching units to some extent. One of these, for example, is the PENSUM programme, from which data on the number of classes, type of classes, number of participants and so on can be extracted. If we “price” each hour of a lecture or laboratory exercise in terms of the amount of carbon footprint left, it will be much easier to sum it up to the level of the entire faculty or the entire campus. Many questions will then be answered immediately.
We are open to cooperation and questions about the project.
Thank you for the interview.
Prof. of the University of Gdansk, Wojciech Pokora, Phd – graduated from the Department of Biotechnology of the Inter-University Faculty of Biotechnology UG and AMG (2000); received his PhD degree (2003) from the Faculty of Biology, Geography and Oceanology UG, his postdoctoral degree (2019) from the Faculty of Biology UG. He has been working at the University of Gdansk since 2004; since 2019 as UG Professor in the Department of Experimental Biology and Plant Biotechnology. He is head of the Plant Biotechnology Laboratory in the Department of Plant Physiology and Biotechnology. His research interests include the course and regulation of the microalgal cell cycle, the involvement of the signalling molecules hydrogen peroxide and nitric oxide in the regulation of the microalgal cell cycle, the mechanisms of plant cell adaptation to oxidative and nitrosative stress; the use of microalgae in carbon dioxide phytoremediation; the use of transformed plants in microplastic bioremediation. His scientific output includes 32 international publications, as well as numerous conference reports.
Interviewed by Szymon Gronowski (Centre for Sustainable Development of the UG)
 The European University of the Seas (SEA-EU) consortium comprises the University of Gdansk (Poland), the University of Cadiz (Spain), the University of Western Brittany (France), the Christian-Albrecht University of Kiel (Germany), the University of Split (Croatia) and the University of Malta in Valletta (Malta), the University of Algarve (Portugal), the University of Parthenope in Naples (Italy) and Nord University (Norway).