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Challenge will put area on a low-carbon diet

Challenge will put area on a low-carbon diet

By 2012, Cool Rochester wants Monroe County to be lighter-by roughly 1 billion pounds.

The organization is leading a three-year effort to reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by a billion pounds, engaging 80,000 households to do so. Unlike efforts that relied on pledges from participants, Cool Rochester operates a Web site that helps calculate exactly how much they have reduced.

Cool Rochester began as an offshoot of the local chapter of the Sierra Club. It originally was a subcommittee on promoting sustainability, but as part of a national organization it faced constraints on hiring, said Bob Siegel, Cool Rochester executive director. So it broke off, becoming its own 501(c)(3) organization.

Plans for the Cool Rochester Challenge grew from a pilot program in which 120 individuals reduced their carbon emissions and recorded the results. The group’s efforts in aggregate avoided 400,000 pounds of emissions, leading Jim Tappon, director of communications for Cool Rochester, to think of bigger goals.

"We got thinking about a program to have 1,000 people involved; then somehow that number quickly grew to 80,000," he said.

To meet the goal, each household would eliminate roughly 5,500 pounds of CO2 emissions per year, 10 percent of the 55,000 generated by the average American household annually. Cool Rochester also engages businesses to reduce their emissions. In total, Monroe County emits close to 20 billion pounds of CO2 each year, Siegel said.

The challenge came at a fortuitous time. David Gershon, author of "Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5000 Pounds," was looking for a city to help scale up its carbon reduction efforts. A number of other cities had organizations leading emission reduction efforts, but most of them relied on pledges rather than the measured commitment Cool Rochester requires.

Rochester also was a good fit because its climate requires more energy use, Siegel said.

"This is a good place for a program like this because it’s cold here and people are more aware that energy is a big part of their budget," he said. "Also, we have a very well-informed populace."

Gershon began working with Cool Rochester, helping to craft the Empowerment Institute, which offers free training sessions for people interested in leading efforts to reduce emissions in their communities.

His book has become an important part of Cool Rochester’s efforts and is promoted heavily on the organization’s Web site. The book spells out 24 actions people can take to reduce their emissions, from lowering the thermostat when they are away from home to helping their workplace reduce emissions.

Tappon himself was skeptical about the human impact on climate change, but he changed his mind after seeing the movie "An Inconvenient Truth."

"I saw that and realized I need to be a part of this," Tappon said. He trained to give Al Gore’s presentation from the movie, which includes suggested actions viewers can take to reduce their environmental impact.

As a mechanical engineer and inventor, Siegel took a more traditional route into environmental advocacy. He worked in research and development at Xerox Corp. for 20 years, winning an award as inventor of the year in 1995. Siegel also has written a novel about sustainability, called "Vapor Trails."

The Cool Rochester Challenge will rely heavily on the support of businesses, both to make changes and to promote the program to employees. Fifty to 90 percent of a community’s carbon emissions come from the residential sector, so business partners would engage employees and clients to conserve energy at home, Siegel said.

Cool Rochester already has garnered the support of Action for a Better Community Inc. and the city of Rochester. Mayor Robert Duffy hosted a kickoff event in September, which featured remarks from William Destler, Rochester Institute of Technology president. Duffy has been a big supporter of the efforts, Siegel said, even suggesting that Cool Rochester hold a large-scale event in Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial.

To meet its goal of reducing emissions by 1 billion pounds, Cool Rochester must have the support of these partners, Tappon said. The organization strives for compatibility with any other group willing to help.

A few months ago, a vegan organization approached Cool Rochester to help spread the message that a diet lower on the food chain has a softer impact on the environment. The group noted that food production accounts for one-third of all carbon emissions, and much of that comes from meat production, Siegel said.

"That won’t be a large part of our campaign, but that’s another tool we can use," Siegel said.

As it spreads to more companies, Cool Rochester will have new chances to learn other sustainable practices it can promote and to seek more corporate sponsorships, Siegel said. The organization relies on a mix of local and federal grants now, but it would need to expand its funding in order to grow, he said.

Companies that become involved would see benefits beyond helping the environment, Tappon said. He cited the work of Frank Dixon, an author and consultant specializing in sustainability.

Dixon headed the largest corporate sustainability research firm in the world and created an investment index of companies rated highest for sustainability. The index consistently outperforms the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, Tappon noted.

Another study, conducted by Royal Dutch Shell in the 1980s, found that businesses surviving for 100 years or more saw themselves first and foremost as a "human community." This kind of thinking permeates successful businesses today, Tappon noted.

"The reality is if companies don’t get into sustainability, they’ll find they’re already behind the curve," he said.

12/4/09 (c) 2009 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail [email protected].