Covenant Campaign Blog from The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

At the Starting Line: 14% by 2014

By Susan Paykin, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC)

Two years from now, we will celebrate the beginning of the Shmittah year, or sabbatical year. Shmittah marks the seventh year in the ancient agricultural cycle, when we are commanded to “release” (the literal Hebraic translation of shmittah) the Earth from human stress. Our land is to lay fallow and any fruits or vegetables that grow are ownerless, open to anyone who needs or wants to eat them.

In the new millennium, observing Shmittah is not as simple as it was during the Biblical era. In North America, most of us do not work on farms nor do we have fields in our backyards to leave unharvested. But this Shmittah cycle, beginning in 2014, the Jewish community is coming together to observe this ancient ritual in a new way: reducing our collective energy use 14% by 2014. COEJL is spearheading this community-wide effort under the banner of the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign, which launched earlier this year.

At the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism we’ve begun working toward this goal, first by taking inventory of our current energy use and calculating our carbon footprint. To do this, we used the CoolClimate Network Small Business Carbon Footprint Calculator, a free online tool recommended by COEJL. The calculator collects information related to four sections — Basic Information, Transportation, Facilities, and Procurement – and determines the total footprint based on these site-specific statistics.

As the RAC’s designated sustainability liaison, it was my role to determine our baseline energy use by conducting this online audit. First up, collecting the basic information about our office, a former embassy located in downtown Washington, DC, such as the building’s square footage and total number of employees. I sat down with Sandi, our administrative director, to learn the ins-and-outs of these areas in addition to our annual waste output, electricity, and natural gas bills. After plugging in these respective numbers to the Facilities section, I moved on to the next part, which I expected would be a bit more subjective: Transportation.

I suspect few organizations regularly track how its employees get to and from the office, and ours was no exception. To collect this information, I drew up a simple Google survey and distributed it to my colleagues, asking:

  • What mode of transportation (car, public transportation, bike, walking) they use to commute to and from the RAC
  • An estimate of their daily commutes in miles per year
  • If by car, their vehicles’ gas mileage

I only had to ask for car commuters’ gas mileage because the CoolClimate Calculator automatically estimates the equivalent mileage for forms of public transportation based on industry averages. Making things even easier (for me and the Earth), those who walk or bike to work produce zero emissions on their commutes, and thus were not included in this calculation.

Of course, our transportation-related carbon impact does not stop at individual commutes; as a staff, we travel a lot, whether taking the train up to Warwick, NY to teach a summer session at URJ’s Kutz Camp, or flying down to Houston for the NAACP Annual Convention. I estimated the travel mileage of the RAC’s senior staff by pouring over weekly schedules from the last year. This was no small task, but based on the significant number of frequent flyer miles our staff seems to have racked up, it was a necessary step in order to ensure an accurate representation of our total footprint.

Next, I moved on to the Procurement section. The CoolClimate Calculator estimates the impact of procurement costs based on industry averages and the organization’s total revenue. Based on our numbers, the calculator estimated that the RAC has a carbon footprint of 39 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year from supply chains.

After entering in all this information (with a few sections requiring some quick math on the side), it was time for the final calculations. The calculator’s summary reported the RAC’s carbon footprint, based on the breakdown of the 4 sections (Basic Information, Transportation, Facilities, and Procurement), in tons of carbon dioxide per year, as well as what percentage each of these areas contributes to our total footprint. For comparison, the summary also provided average estimates of the same breakdown from similarly-sized organizations. This last feature was very helpful as it allows us to see how we’re performing in relation to the broader non-profit community.

The RAC’s carbon footprint summary is as follows:

What’s next? Now that we know how much our building and our behavior contribute to our carbon footprint, we can take steps to target our energy reduction and conservation efforts. Our building is not very energy efficient, especially with heating and cooling (and anyone who’s ever stepped foot in the RAC during the summer will tell you that it feels like you’re sitting in an Igloo). Investing in insulation upgrades and HVAC/temperature regulation systems would help lower our energy bills and our carbon emissions. All of these projects, however, require a significant monetary commitment, which all non-profits, including the RAC, struggle with in an ailing economy. We are also looking into the feasibility of installing photovoltaic solar panels on-site, as the District of Columbia offers renewable energy rebates. More immediately, however, we can change our behavior by relying less on cars and carpooling more often, using less paper in the office, recycling more, and driving or taking the train instead of flying for business, when possible. As we work to brainstorm more ideas to help us reach our goal of 14% energy reduction by 2014, our baseline calculation will be an important asset in helping determine where that reduction can come from and in what sector (for us, this is likely facilitates) it will have the greatest impact. And after implementing these ideas, we’ll be able to compare our 2014 carbon footprint with our 2012 calculation and see how far we’ve come.

Reflecting on this process, I must also offer a hearty kol ha’kavod to the folks at CoolClimate Network for developing such a helpful and easy-to-use tool. I would highly recommend the Calculator to other small business or non-profits looking to conduct a baseline energy calculation.

I am also glad to know the RAC has the support of the broader Jewish community, which is also engaging in energy reduction efforts through COEJL’s Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign. This campaign has breathed new life into the meaning of Shmittah, the 7th year in which we are commanded to relieve our impact on the Earth. Although we are largely no longer farmers with fields to leave fallow, in 2014 the Jewish community will usher in a new Shmittah tradition that speaks to our modern day ecological challenges: reducing our energy use by 14%. Fulfilling this goal will not be easy, but at least we are at the starting line.

Susan Paykin is a 2011-2012 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the RAC.

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