How Wesleyan University is Charting the Course for Greener Employee Travel

This article is part of an ongoing series spotlighting the climate action taken by Climate Vault’s 2023 Carbon Champion Award recipients. The award program celebrates Climate Vault Partners who go above and beyond in their climate commitments to make a positive and meaningful impact on their business emissions and the planet. Meet this year’s six honorees here.

In 2019, Wesleyan University embarked on a journey to address its carbon emissions from air travel and quickly honed in on the significant impact of its employee flights. The University’s President and leadership team recognized the need to make strategic and thoughtful changes to reduce carbon emissions associated with travel while still achieving their institutional goals. This and their other sustainability efforts earned them a Gold rating from AASHE STARS in 2023, as well as recognition as Climate Vault’s Carbon Champion Innovator Award recipient.

We sat down with Jen Kleindienst, Sustainability Director at Wesleyan, to better understand the university’s unique approach to mitigating its travel footprint by fostering a thoughtful approach to green employee travel, a new carbon fee and their partnership with Climate Vault.

Identifying the Issue

The university’s carbon emissions analysis has consistently revealed that 20% of its footprint was attributed to air travel, with about 15% of that coming from university-sponsored travel. This included faculty and staff attending conferences, meeting with investment managers, students participating in university-sponsored events, and more. Wesleyan wanted to tackle this area head-on and sought a solution that would align with their commitment to sustainability. 

“After making the decision to focus on reducing our travel footprint, we started immediately thinking ‘how can we do better?’ And it seemed like the most obvious solution was to start by making folks responsible and aware of the full impact, both fiscally and environmentally, of their travel,” said Jen. “By taking this approach, we thought it might just get them to think a little bit more about that flight they’re considering and whether its goal could be accomplished  over a Zoom call or other virtual attendance instead.”

While the university leadership recognized that air travel will always remain a necessity, they wanted to ensure its team approached travel with eyes opened to the full impact of every trip. 

The Carbon Fee Solution

Jen and the university leadership decided to implement an internal carbon fee to hold individuals accountable for their travel. Rather than opting for a one-size-fits-all approach, they aimed to set a fee based on the actual cost of carbon associated with each trip.

“There are a number of other schools who have done something in this general vein, but nothing that’s exactly like what Wesleyan wanted to do. For the most part, other universities either tend to set one flat fee, typically under the $50 realm, or have a domestic charge and an international charge. But it was important to us to have our fee match the price of carbon as closely as possible so the full and actual impact is known by the individual purchasing the flight.”

Strategic Implementation

Wesleyan’s goal was not to eliminate travel but to ensure that it was conducted thoughtfully and with consideration for its environmental impact. The university considered various models used by other institutions and decided on a percentage-based approach. This ensured that the carbon fee was proportionate to the cost of the flight.

As Jen put it, “Chances are if you have booked a $100 flight, your carbon footprint for that flight is going to be on the smaller end of the spectrum. But if you’re looking at taking a $1,500 flight, the odds are high that you are going significantly farther, which has ramifications both environmentally and financially.”

Progress and Expansion

The initiative began with a pilot in the President’s office, and within the last year has expanded to include all departments. Each department received a budget increase equivalent to 5% of its fiscal 2019 air travel expenditure, ensuring that the fee did not compromise other aspects of departmental budgets, such as research or student support. 

“Our staff and faculty get to decide how they’re utilizing their budgets,” Jen says. “So theoretically their travel fee could be a zero sum if they decide to fly the exact same amount as in 2019. This empowers them to look at the increased budget and ask ‘what would I like to spend it on and is air travel really what I want to prioritize?’’

Even during a time with reduced travel throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the university continued to assess its internal carbon fee. By doing so, Wesleyan University ensured that the program was integrated into its financial processes, making it a routine part of budgeting and accounting that now runs like clockwork for its entire staff.

Taking Credible Climate Action a Step Further

After successfully implementing the carbon fee for its employees, Wesleyan wanted to take the next and necessary step to offset their travel emissions. It became increasingly important to Jen and the university that their offset partner could ensure tangible and measurable environmental benefits. Enter the partnership with Climate Vault.

Jen appreciated Climate Vault’s commitment to transparency provided by participating in a government regulated compliance carbon market (CCM), like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which creates co-benefits for Wesleyan’s local communities.  Climate Vault purchases emission allowances from RGGI equivalent to Wesleyan’s travel footprint and locks them up in its vault so no one can emit that carbon. This collaboration between Wesleyan and Climate Vault enables the university to take credible climate action today, while also automatically investing in a future where these emissions will ultimately be permanently removed from the atmosphere through innovative carbon dioxide removal (CDR) projects. 

“While Climate Vault doesn’t provide an offset in the traditional sense,” Jen says, “it meets the spirit of what we consider an offset in that there’s a net balance. We know we’re really doing something substantive rather than hoping that a tree planted in the forest somewhere absorbs some carbon.”

For its unique approach to mitigating its internal travel footprint, Climate Vault is proud to recognize Wesleyan University as the 2023 recipient of the Charbon Champion Innovator Award. The Innovator award celebrates the Partner that seeks out and creates innovative solutions to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. They expand ways of thinking about reducing carbon emissions, supporting constituents, and building a more sustainable future. Meet all of our 2023 Carbon Champion honorees here.

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