Reducing Our Carbon Footprint

The Institute’s mission is to inspire environmental stewardship through transformative learning experiences in nature. Our staff and board of directors recognize that the greatest threat to the well-being of our natural environment is climate change. 

The scale of the threat is enormous, and the dangers of climate change have global implications, affecting all aspects of human life and the natural world. Addressing climate change is crucial to mitigate these dangers and reduce the severity of its impacts. This requires international cooperation, policy changes, and individual actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the changes already underway.

The Institute is committed to doing all we can to slow climate change through our own actions, as well as by sharing what we learn to individuals and other organizations. We all need to play a direct role in stewarding our environment and reducing our carbon footprints.

The two prongs of action for reducing our carbon footprint are:

  • reducing or eliminating the Institute’s burning of fossil fuels (for example, in transportation and heating)
  • offsetting carbon emissions that we cannot eliminate by purchasing carbon offsets that invest in projects directly reducing greenhouse gases

Here is an overview of our research into what our carbon footprint is, what we can do to lessen it, and the actions we have taken this far.

Setting Carbon Reduction Goals

In January 2020, North Cascades Institute's Board of Directors approved a new Strategic Plan for 2020-2024 that included a new, bold goal titled "Conservation in Practice" that aimed to "achieve Institute climate neutrality by 2030 and use the journey as an opportunity to inspire action in ourselves and others." This is a very exciting opportunity for our organization to bring our business operations in line with our conservation values, and to inspire others to start their own journey towards reducing their carbon footprint.

Calculating Our Carbon Footprint

In 2022, the Institute contracted the Peak Sustainability Group (Peak) to calculate our operational carbon footprint, recommend ways to reduce our organization’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and identify options to offset the emissions that cannot be quickly reduced. 

We provided Peak data on elements of our business like participant and staff transportation and energy usage for Institute owned and leased buildings. The Peak project team collected additional usage data and converted it into the common unit of pounds of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) for direct comparison.

The most significant sources of electricity emissions are staff housing and the Sedro- Woolley office. However, the greatest electricity use by far is from the Environmental Learning Center. The electricity for that facility is provided by Seattle City Light from the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project and is considered emissions-free, as SCL is a carbon-neutral organization. 

Participant travel makes up almost half of all of the Institute’s emissions (45%), and staff commuting is the next biggest category at 37% of total emissions. Over half of emissions from employee commutes are attributed to employees commuting from Marblemount to the Environmental Learning Center (57%), while staff commuting to the Sedro Woolley office accounted for 39% of commute emissions. Fuel purchased for Institute vehicle use, like shuttle vans and retail deliveries, is another contributor to the Institute’s overall footprint as well.

Strategies for Reducing Our Carbon Footprint

In addition to the review of emissions sources associated with Institute operations, the Peak project team identified key areas in which emissions reductions can be made, and strategies for reducing those emissions. We are addressing our footprint with a portfolio of options, including

  • encouraging carpooling for staff and participants
  • researching options for solar energy and energy-efficiency at staff housing
  • paid staff hours for service work that can include stewardship volunteering
  • advocating for EV-charging stations at the Learning Center

To lower the carbon footprint of our staff housing, in 2023 we replaced an old oil furnace with a new electrical high-efficiency heating system in Marblemount. Now we aren't losing heat in the attic or crawl spaces, and each room can be heated and cooled individually very efficiently. We also blew in cellulose insulation between the interior walls of the ADU and performed work on the main house's attic, including replacing vents, weatherproofing and installing new insulation.

In 2024, we are working on implementing several infrastructure upgrades at the Environmental Learning Center that will reduce our carbon footprint and increase energy efficiency. These include replacement of our current boiler system from centralized to decentralized; upgrading the hot water tanks; upgrading the dishpit in the kitchen; and eventually installing a new composter system.

While many of these efforts seem small on their own, together several small actions add up to a bigger impact on dialing down our carbon footprint.

Investing in Carbon Offsets

Another strategy for reducing the Institute's carbon footprint is purchasing carbon offsets to help us address impacts that are harder for us to control, primarily participant travel to the Learning Center. Carbon offsets, also known as carbon credits, are a market-based mechanism designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. They work by allowing individuals, companies, and governments to invest in projects that either reduce or capture an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases to offset their own emissions. 

The concept is rooted in the idea that, on a global scale, emissions reductions can be achieved more efficiently and cost-effectively in some places than in others, so it makes sense to allow emissions to occur in some areas while compensating for them through emissions reductions or removals elsewhere.

Peak researched the benefits and drawbacks of different types of carbon offsetting for emissions unlikely to be directly reduced in the near term and identified several carbon offsetting options. Our considerations included the impacts of investing locally versus globally, and also identifying projects that promote holistic sustainability goals, not just carbon sequestration.

The Carbon Impact Committee recommended to the Institute's Board of Directors the purchase of carbon offsets from Kulshan Carbon Trust (KCT), a non-profit organization based in Bellingham that works with landowners in Northwest Washington to implement and certify natural climate solution projects to produce local certified carbon credits. These have included investing in the biocharcoal process and reforesting hay lands on the South Fork of the Nooksack.

They also recommended purchasing offsets through Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF), an organization based in Portland, Oregon that offers portfolios of carbon offsets from around the world that are certified by third-party verification organizations. Part of the proceeds from BEF credit purchases go towards supporting regional projects, such as replanting west coast forests damaged by wildfires, protecting orcas, and developing renewable energy projects in partnership with regional tribes. 

The request to invest in carbon credits for 2023 and 2024 was approved unanimously by the Board.

What's Next?

This is only the start of our journey towards climate neutrality and we look forward to sharing what we learn along the way with the public and other organizational and agency peers!