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Discussing the new Master of Greenhouse Gas Management and Accounting

Beginning in the Fall 2015 semester, the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability (ESS) will offer a Master of Greenhouse Gas Management and Accounting (MGMA). The MGMA is a coursework-only format (no thesis) that will typically be completed in three semesters with an additional one-semester internship. The MGMA will offer training in developing and quantifying of greenhouse gas mitigation efforts to help students pursue careers in the agricultural and forestry sectors. Interested students are encouraged to apply; ESS is accepting applications until the end of March for next fall.

The MGMA program leads are Dr. Richard Conant and Dr. Stephen Ogle, both professors in ESS. Dr. Conant’s research focuses on understanding the feedbacks between human activities and ecosystem biogeochemistry, specifically how land use and land management impact carbon and nitrogen cycling in agricultural and grassland ecosystems. Dr. Ogle is a global leader in research dealing with assessments of land use and management impacts on biogeochemical processes. EcoPress caught up with Dr. Conant to get the inside scoop on the MGMA program.

Photo credit: Warner College of Natural Resources.
Photo credit: Warner College of Natural Resources.

First of all, thanks for answering some questions about the new MGMA program. What are your motivations for establishing this degree?

RC: The motivation for the degree is that there’s a large and growing need for people who understand how to properly account for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The recognition that climate change is an important issue continues to grow and we need to do things to reduce our GHG emissions. If we can’t accurately account for our emissions then we don’t know where to begin with reducing emissions. I think that accurate accounting is fundamental to making progress. There’s a famous quotation by a management guru Peter Drucker, something like, “that which gets measured gets managed.” The complement to that is that which we don’t measure, we don’t manage. So I think that measuring and accounting for GHG emissions is fundamental to reducing GHG emissions.

In your opinion, how does this program fit into the fabric of ESS and the NREL? Additionally, what does this department have to offer that similar programs around the country might not provide?

RC: The program is a natural outgrowth of some of the core research activities that we do in NREL. At CSU, in general, we’ve got unmatched strength in agriculture and natural resource GHG accounting. We’ve got people here who do the national inventories for soil carbon stock, N2O emissions, and livestock emissions. Not only that but the group has been doing it for 15 or 20 years now, and along the way has revolutionized the way that these GHG emissions were done. We’ve been engaged in writing the rules for those inventories and implementing inventories with different countries around the world, and an outgrowth of that has been engagement in a variety of activities at levels ranging from international syntheses (e.g., IPCC reports) to project level accounting for people interested in engaging in carbon trading. So I think the strength at CSU, with the core at NREL, is unmatched at any institution in the world.

I think the program fits directly into the fabric of NREL and ESS. From the start, when we were developing the idea of ESS, a core idea was to have one or a set of professional master’s degrees. It’s the first new graduate degree we’ve had in the program. I think that reflects the recognition that there is demand for people who have skills beyond what they can learn in a bachelor’s degree. With emerging environmental sustainability issues there is a need for training master’s-level students to do these types of things. There are some other programs around the world that do these types of things. There’s a private institute called the GHG Institute that does mostly online training and it’s very practical training mostly oriented towards project level accounting. There are programs at Northern Arizona University and Columbia that are similar to ours, they do GHG accounting but are more broadly focused on climate mitigation, adaptation, and understanding the impacts of climate change. I would say that our strength is really in the GHG accounting that’s what’s novel about our program.

There are many ways in which greenhouse gases are emitted but the focus of the degree seems to be on the agricultural and forestry sectors. Why is it important that students are trained specifically in these sectors? Do accounting practices differ between these sectors and other high emission sectors like industry, energy, and transportation?

RC: In the U.S. most emissions are not from agriculture and forestry—most are from energy and transportation—but the program reflects our unmatched strength in agriculture and forestry that we wanted to leverage. One of the novel things about accounting for emissions from agriculture is the opportunity to do, for example, a food life cycle assessment. You need to account for the emissions that happen on the farm—which we are really good at—plus the emissions for all the resources used on the farm (fertilizer, energy of all kinds, transportation). So if you think about doing a life cycle assessment for an agricultural project, it integrates all the different sectors. I really think that despite the fact we specialize in this component that may not be the biggest source of emissions, when we talk about doing end-to-end accounting we do need to include agriculture and forestry for many of the key commodities in economy. By having that perspective our students are going to be exposed to the full gamut of different emissions sectors and how to account for them. In other programs that are focused on energy, students may not be exposed to agricultural and natural resource emissions, whereas our students will be.

The basic accounting practices across all sectors are quite similar. For example, you need to know something about what the management practices are, what people are doing, or what kind of cars they’re driving. The standard is that you have information about the activities and how those activities affect GHG emissions and you put those activities together—that is typically how you do the accounting. The same is true for the agriculture sector. People think about mitigation practices like using nitrification inhibitors that reduce N2O emissions; we need to know how common that practice is and what the effect is. You multiply those things together and you get a total emission.

By Phillipe Rekacewicz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
By Phillipe Rekacewicz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Describe the skillset you hope MGMA graduates will have upon completion of their degree. The required coursework includes electives in quantitative methods and technical tools; in this field, what does that mean?

RC: We have a core curriculum that consists of a foundations course that I teach, to talk about all GHG emissions, why we do things that lead to greenhouse gas emissions, what we get from doing that, what happened in the past, what people predict might happen in the future, etc., and we look at the things we might do to reduce emissions in the future. We talk a lot about energy, for example, so it is kind of a survey course. We also have policy course where we try to extract common themes across the U.S. (in different states) or across different countries and do a comparative analysis. We also look at the impact on different sectors. We have a climate change course where students learn about the basics of climate change. We have an applications course where the students learn about the tools that they can use to do greenhouse gas accounting, which are focused on agricultural and natural resources. We have a course on soils and global change that Francesca [Cotrufo] teaches. We have a course that’s being developed on forest carbon accounting that Mike Ryan might teach, and a colleague in animal sciences that has created a special thread in his course focused on GHG emissions from livestock. We are also developing a course on life cycle assessment. Beyond that, students are encouraged to take courses that help them develop numeracy skills—modeling, GIS, statistics—and we want to have students do coursework that helps them better understand GHG emissions in different sectors. Down the road we would like another course on energy.

Most of the technical courses are focused on numeracy and representing systems, the transformations of matter that happen in those systems, but we are also trying to emphasize communication, which is one of the most important things that helps people get jobs and be successful in those jobs. We have a lot of student-led discussions, presentations, and a group project throughout the course of the semester that allows students to interact with each other and work on a team. The other piece of the education is the 4-credit internship. When a student gets here, our plan is to interview the student and help them understand what they want to do when they finish. Then they will have a year’s worth of courses before a summer internship, or possibly the following spring, that will prepare them for what they want to do when they graduate. After the internship, they come back for another semester and graduate. Hopefully, the internship helps them develop the office skills they need to be successful, helps them identify the other things they need to learn to be successful while here at CSU, and helps them begin to establish the network that will get them positions when they graduate.

Photo credit: Seedstock Merchandising Team via Warner College of Natural Resources.
Photo credit: Seedstock Merchandising Team via Warner College of Natural Resources.

As an incoming student I would want to know how this degree would shape my career and what career paths may be opened by this program. What kind of jobs (and internships) can MGMA students expect to find upon completion of the program? In other words, who is looking for people with a degree in greenhouse gas management and accounting?

RC: There are rules in place in the U.S. that require big emitters to do accounting—big emitters range from CSU to government agencies to big power plants and to some big businesses. There are laws in California that require even much smaller businesses to do reporting, and I think that as California goes, so goes the U.S. It seems likely that we will have more and more reporting requirements. There are all kinds of businesses that do this voluntarily already. CSU has been producing an annual emissions report for quite a while now, and lots of other organizations are too. Many of these are done with staff that are teaching themselves how to do it, so I think the number of organizations looking for GHG accounting will continue to grow.  There are many opportunities for consulting work to quantify emissions in companies, NGOs, agencies, and other entities that need to track their emissions. We created this program to best-prepare our graduates for this burgeoning market.

There is also this idea that when we release GHG emissions it is a sign of waste in our system. So, if we can put a little effort into understanding where those GHG emissions arise that will help us make our businesses more efficient. The example I always use is Walmart. They are supporting research into dairies to understand where their emissions arise and variability between producers to identify opportunities to reduce emissions, waste. This will presumably reduce the cost for those producers to make milk resulting in a lower price for Walmart and lower prices for the consumer and more sales and profit for Walmart. So they are looking at GHG as a sign of inefficiency, and if they can reduce inefficiency they can reduce cost. Lots of organizations are going to be doing this in the future and as we get better and better at doing this, it will get less expensive and more businesses will look into doing this. So I think the job market exists already and I think it is going to continue to grow.

China and India are big contributors to the global carbon budget. Are there any efforts through this program to partner with organizations in these countries or recruit international students to the program?

RC: We would LOVE to have students from those countries, as well as other countries, come and participate in this program. We’re trying to partner with international organizations to support students to come here. We would like to partner with USAID to develop some programs that would allow us to bring students to our program and develop joint programs with other institutions. We do have a precedent here at CSU in the Warner College of Natural Resources. The Master’s of Tourism Management has a resident program, an online program, and a new program being delivered in Chinese, in China, which could be quite large. So, I could see this program branching out as an online program, perhaps with a certificate that has some of the core courses. Or maybe we deliver the core courses online, or in another language, and then other institutions use their core statistics and GIS to supplement our courses. We’re moving in that direction but we’re not there yet.

Featured image by Dave Burnham, used under CC BY-NC 2.0.