GHGMI’s decade of experimentation – what have we learned?

June 1, 2017, by Michael Gillenwater

This year we are celebrating GHG Management Institute’s 10th anniversary. It is hard to believe. (Especially because it means I’m getting old!)

In the last decade we have expended much sweat and tears building, and at times disrupting, the often bureaucratic common practices in international capacity building. We are extremely proud of this work, done with many of you as partners, alumni, and members. Much of that work included intentional experimentation. We recognize that innovation only comes from a willingness to try, and at times fail.

With this post, I review 3 major experiments that in 2007 we didn’t know would work, but have shaped GHGMI today.

Experiment #1: Online learning

One of our core areas of leadership has been in online learning approaches for rigorous technical training. We faced much skepticism launching our first online course. If you recall, 2007 was before the boom in e-learning. Before we saw crowdsourced instruction via companies like Coursera, Udacity and EdX. Even in 2017, we still see resistance to the use of technology in learning. But, our commitment to it has not waivered. Our preferred learning strategy continues to be a blend of both e-learning with in-person workshops. This combination allows learners to apply, practice, and reinforce skills in format that maximizes outcomes and minimizes cost.

A key rationale for our decade of investment in the largest technical GHG curriculum in the world is that it has allowed us to dedicate more time and resources to the development of each e-learning course in the form of strong pedagogy, instructional design, and world-class faculty. Our online courses also have allowed learners to set their own goals, study at their own pace, and repeat challenging lessons as desired. Perhaps most significant to our strategy, though, was an early focus on enhancing access. Climate change is a global problem that demands we promote globally opportunities to contribute to addressing it. Advances in the internet allow us to train learners “anytime, anywhere”. And we have avoided the expense and GHG emissions associated with traveling and commuting while providing global access to world-class instruction.

And outcomes? Have we sacrificed on quality to reach more people and avoid travel? Actually, the evidence shows that e-learning is not only on par with classroom-based learning, according to one of the most widely accepted systematic studies on the matter, e-learning is in fact more effective than face-to-face instruction:

“The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, U.S. Department of Education, 2009

You have probably noticed that there are tuition fees for our diplomas and courses (although we provide generous financial aid and scholarship support). Traditional international capacity building projects typically offer training workshops at no cost to the trainees. We’re actually proud of this distinction. To develop the type of deeply technical, and pedagogically rigorous training program, consistent with university degrees and other professional designations, it is essential to leverage a sustainable resourcing model that is not solely reliant upon funding from short-term international development projects. It is also important for there to be a self-selecting process for those that want to join this cadre of GHG professionals. We want to have the correct people in the “room” that will be the experts and champions for the future of the profession. Lawyers, doctors and engineers hang their credentials and training achievements on their office walls for a reason. Ultimately, our profession must be viewed by society as earning their expertise in a rigorous and credible manner.


Ten years later, we have filled the world with over 3,500 GHGMI alumni who are doing thoughtful and deep technical work that the world needs to tackle climate change. In fact, over a third of the UNFCCC Roster of Experts are GHGMI alumni. Yet, there is still much work to do. We all hoped that we would have made more political progress in addressing climate change. What this means now is that we must expand our timetable, making sure we also train another generation of GHG experts. 3,500 trained, at least another 3,500 to go.

Experiment #2: An NGO that practices what it preaches

Staff RetreatSo, where is GHGMI located? We receive this question quite often. Our corporate not-for-profit registration in the Washington, D.C. area, but I am based on the other side of the continent, in beautiful Seattle. And our faculty and staff are located in several countries, including the Philippines, Canada and all corners of the USA (e.g., Los Angeles, San Diego, Montana, Vermont, Chicago, and Denver).

Analogously, we also get asked if we are a U.S.-focused organization? No is the easy answer. The Institute was established to serve a global community and the vast major of our programs continue to be focused on the developing world.

So far, these two fun-facts are not very interesting. But, there is an element of our organizational design and philosophy that I believe is noteworthy.

We put a lot of thought into the design of the GHG Management Institute as a 21st century organization. Indeed, we took the call for companies and other organizations to reduce the carbon footprint of their operations very seriously. So much so, in fact, that while setting up the Institute we decided to do what so many talk about, but so few organizations actually do. We created an organizational structure designed to have a minimized carbon footprint. A key element of this design was being a virtual organization, thereby eliminating commuting emissions and inefficient use of duplicative building space (residential and commercial). We focused on finding the best experts in the world, regardless of their location. We invested heavily in information technology infrastructure rather than bricks and mortar (and continue to do so). We minimized our travel, and therefore travel related emissions, to the greatest extent possible. You may wonder why you rarely see us at conferences or other events. This is not by accident. We are not against travel, but insist that it be necessary travel. And wish more of the climate change community did similarly.

So, what are the numbers? Using our friends at the World Resources Institute as a benchmark – an organization that has taken commendable efforts to manage their own GHG emissions – our carbon footprint data showed that per employee our emissions have been less than half WRI’s.

How can this be? Is this dodgy accounting? Not to sound smug, but we do know a little about emissions accounting. Armed with that background I can unequivocally tell you the answer is no. Further, the story is even more interesting, because the Scope 1 and 2 emissions of the Institute are zero!

Alumni of our training will already have figured out that our emissions must all be Scope 3. We did not want to simply use our virtual organization model as an accounting trick that would allow us to outsource our emissions. So for our inventory, we made every effort to estimate our all of our Scope 3 footprint. This required we include emissions from our prime contractors, our faculty, as well as from our learners who take our training courses.

Specifically, we chose to define organizational boundaries to include staff, end users (e.g., learners), and other select behaviours associated with the organization. This includes employee, contract and part-time staff, students, instructors, staff travel, and business offices of other organizations where staff perform work for the Institute. Employees perform work from dedicated home offices, and we choose to take responsibility for emissions from these home offices. We also included emissions associated with energy consumption by our server which hosts our website and learning management system.

Most of these emissions resulted from Scope 3-related mobile combustion and Scope 3-related purchased electricity (i.e., for home offices, faculty, and our learners). We estimated emissions of both CH4 and N2O, although, CO2 was by far the dominant gas emitted. And emissions related to Institute staff and our e-learning contractor accounted for 78% of total emissions. Because half of this amount was from our contractors, one of our key lessons learned is that we need to work with our contractors to help them reduce their emissions.

Further, we investigated the kind of impact not just our virtual office model had, but also what impact our focus on e-learning had. To do this we compared our emissions to that of traditional educational institutions. Our resulting average emissions were calculated to be 1.91 kg CO2e per instructional hour. We then compared the level of our GHG emissions to the student credit hour data records from the University of California, Davis, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Colorado, Boulder; three universities that have progressive climate action plans and programs. Compared with the Institute, the emissions per instructional hour for these universities was three to four times greater. In other words, this simple comparison suggests that educational organizations could reduce their emissions by 60 to 75% if they brought further focus to online learning and a virtual workplace.

Suffice it to say, this experiment has been a resounding success. Eight out of ten new businesses fail within the first 18 months. Our organization not only progressed past the do-or-die phase of an entrepreneurial endeavour, we created an organization designed to operate with minimal GHG emissions and achieve maximum global impact for the past ten years. We hope our experience will serve as an encouraging example for other organizations, particularly other non-profits focused on climate change.

Experiment #3: Creating a profession

And, now where we have failed, at least thus far (we have not given up yet). This experiment has been to create a formally recognized profession of carbon managers that would lead and enable the technical implementation of meaningful GHG mitigation measures in governments and the private sector at all levels.

GHG measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) is the foundation of nearly all climate change policies. But for society to have confidence in these metrics, they will have to be produced by personnel they trust. Right now we don’t have that trust, a shortcoming that must soon be rectified if we are to sufficiently scale climate change mitigation efforts. Our vision and solution to this trust gap is a community of professionals that support each other and police each other’s behavior. We posit that such a ready and growing community of trusted professionals would give policy makers and the public confidence to move more aggressively with climate policies. After ten years of effort, and some failure initiatives along the way, our efforts with this approach to capacity building for climate policy implementation are a work in progress.

Now, following the successful entry into force of the Paris Agreement, we are finally seeing global attention to the need for technical capacity building in developing countries. Unfortunately, this attention at the international level still does not include much (if any) elaboration of what is meant by “capacity building”. One of the few to even attempt a definition is the United Nations Development Programme:

Capacity building: the creation of an enabling environment with appropriate policy and legal frameworks, institutional development, including community participation (of women in particular), human resources development and strengthening of managerial systems, [recognizing] that capacity building is a long-term, continuing process, in which all stakeholders participate (ministries, local authorities, non-governmental organizations and water user groups, professional associations, academics and others).

But, even here we are left with only a vague notion related to community, human capital and institution building activities.

I have spent a good portion of my career, as have several others here at the GHGMI, undertaking international capacity building work on GHG issues. Our experience has, in large part, shaped how the GHGMI was designed.

Many climate change-related capacity building efforts have adhered to the following simple model:

The consultant spends several days flipping through PowerPoint slides on a screen and talking. The workshop closes, there is a nice dinner and ceremony, everyone goes home, and that is the end of it. There is often little follow up after the workshop, much less rigorous measurement of knowledge or competency outcomes.

Sadly, in addition to receiving training, a frequent incentive for some developing country representatives to attend these training workshops is that they receive a Daily Subsistence Allowance (DSA). Understandably, for government employees in some countries, this DSA money can represent a significant fraction of their salary. And, going to international meetings can be a prestigious honor back at home. The point here is that the incentives are not necessarily there for government ministries and NGOs to send the right people to the workshop — those that strongly desire and can really use the skills gleaned from the training.

Here at the Institute we take a different approach to capacity building. While focusing on motivations, deep learning, and the establishment of associated community norms, we take a systemic approach to the process of professionalization. We strongly believe that professions — again, like law, accounting, engineering, medicine, etc.—have had a powerful influence on economic and social development. An emphasis on professional competency, quality, and ethical behavior provides the kind of social infrastructure that make possible for larger things to happen, which the broader society would otherwise not have confidence to undertake. This point is especially relevant where the issue involves a public collective action problem, like enacting aggressive national and global GHG mitigation policies.

Building a professional community is a challenging project for anyone. Doing so both globally and quickly is even more difficult. Luckily, online tools can facilitate the process like never before through infrastructure for training, community networking and norm setting, standards development, and professional certification. It is this infrastructure that the Institute has spent a decade focused on building, in collaboration with partners around the world.

Ten years on, this experiment is still a work in progress. It has taught us that there is a need and potential demand for meaningful GHG professionalization. But, it is predicated on stronger policy drivers, political will. From GHGMI’s beginning we had a 20-year vision of professionalization. So, while such a formal profession is still emerging, the experiment is really only half way complete.

Final Thoughts…

So, looking back on 10 years, we have much to be proud of. Yet, still so much more work to do. We are not surprised that the global community has been politically slow to accept the reality of climate change and take appropriate mitigation actions. Nevertheless, we are saddened that this pessimistic assumption has not yet been disproved. GHGMI’s vision and mission is as relevant and important as it ever was. Our team is doubling down with renewed passion for making sure the next 10 years are truly transformative globally.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *