It’s Not Easy Being Green: Campuses Earn Average Grades for Sustainability

In the mid-2000s the campus sustainability movement was gaining strength.

College presidents signed the Climate Commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A great many campuses created offices of sustainability to promote awareness, oversee LEED certification for buildings, and encourage competition among students to save energy. New majors to study clean energy were added to college curricula. Higher education was leading the way to becoming “green.”

Or so it seemed.

The State of Sustainability in Higher Education,” a January 2016 report from Sightlines and the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), shows that over the last eight years campuses across the U.S. have collectively had just a modest reduction in carbon emissions (down 5 percent) — and that they have actually increased energy consumption (up 2 percent). These statistics are very similar to national averages for other industries. In other words, colleges have not been green leaders.

The picture looks somewhat better for emissions (which are down 13 percent) when the data are calculated as energy use per gross square footage, mainly because campuses have largely switched from coal and oil as energy sources to cleaner natural gas.

The Limitations of Advocacy

Does this means that the campus sustainability movement has stalled? Have the expectations of campus presidents and trustees concerning green initiatives changed? Do students now care less about the environment, or are they distracted by other serious campus issues like violence and sexual assault?

Data suggest, however, that school leaders and students alike still value sustainability on campus. The Sightlines/UNH report showed that campuses whose presidents had signed the Climate Commitment consumed 27 percent less energy and saw a 47 percent drop in emissions, as compared with those whose presidents were non-signatories. A similar commitment emerged among students, as well. A 2015 Princeton Review survey of 10,000 college applicants found that 60 percent would factor the environmental commitment of an institution into their decision to apply or attend.

Why Higher Education Isn’t Greener

So if leadership and students are both committed to sustainability, why haven’t schools been successful in reducing energy and carbon emissions? There are six key contributing factors — and collectively, they make the greening of higher education especially challenging.

Economic Stresses

The Great Recession of 2008–2010 hit campus finances hard and put a damper on the major capital investments in campus utility systems and energy improvements that have the largest impact. Campuses with the capital to replace inefficient HVAC systems or to build new co-generation utility plants are making the greatest gains toward reducing consumption and emissions. While not the flashy stuff of PR campaigns, fixing what is behind the walls of a building can have a greater impact than merely encouraging faculty and students to use less energy.

Campus Growth

In recent years, many campuses have built new spaces, including high-tech research facilities, new dorms, and recreation centers. These buildings, while more energy-efficient than older facilities, add to each school’s overall carbon footprint (and that’s not to mention the construction process itself).

Renovation Needs

Limited capital means that while new spaces — which tend to be relatively easy to fundraise for — were constructed, older 1960s and 1970s “energy hog” buildings were not renovated. Renovation projects, less exciting than striking new structures, present a greater challenge in fundraising efforts. These buildings are still in use (the space is, after all, still needed), and their energy consumption can offset any gains made from new energy-efficient buildings.

Low-ROI Energy Projects

The cost of energy, particularly of natural gas and (recently) heating oil, is going down. While this is typically considered good news, it also means that the Return on Investment (ROI) of energy projects is often a tough sell to funders. The Sightlines/UNH report showed that when energy costs are low, energy consumption is high. For example, campuses in New England consumed 50 percent less energy than campuses in the Great Lakes region, despite having similar heating- and cooling-degree days. The main difference was that energy costs are almost double in New England. This created incentives for campuses to pursue energy-reduction initiatives — and delivered a high ROI for those that implemented them.

Lack of Policy Incentives

Many states have policies that require energy reductions at public campuses, and they provide financial incentives for energy-related capital projects. Campuses located in these states are more motivated to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. The opposite, however, is also true. Campuses in states lacking such initiatives tend not to undertake energy-related capital projects. And with the cost of energy going down, some of the state policy incentives may go away altogether.

Poor Data

Measuring progress in reducing carbon emissions is difficult and requires sophisticated data tracking. Many campus administrators don’t have accurate data or analysis tools to prove that investments in energy efficiency can have a clear positive impact.

Campuses Making a Difference

Where does the sustainability movement on campuses go from here, especially in light of the Paris Agreement and the widespread expectation that higher-education institutions will lead on this issue? We can learn a lot from campuses that are the current leaders in reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Campuses like the University of Vermont (UVM) and the University of Missouri–Kansas City (UMKC) infuse sustainability policies into every facilities-related decision on campus, from new construction projects to campus investment policies to energy conservation practices. Small steps matter at these schools. Online, UMKC also tracks the impact of pledges made by faculty and students to turn off lights and computers when they’re not in use. The pervasive and highly visible commitment to and culture of sustainability has a significant — and measurable — impact.

American University in Washington, D.C. recently installed the largest solar array (2,150 photovoltaic panels) in the city, generating 532 kilowatts and yielding 637 megawatt hours of electricity each year. To put this feat in perspective, such a quantity of electricity avoids the use of more than 557 tons of carbon annually; the school reports that this is “the equivalent of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from 57,500 gallons of gasoline annually, or nearly 1 million gallons over 20 years.” In partnership with the nearby George Washington University, American has agreed to purchase 50 percent of its power from solar sources in North Carolina. The campus expects to build on these efforts to achieve a goal of carbon neutrality by 2020 — with very little money invested upfront.

The California State University system has a plan to generate new approaches to sustainability across its 23 campuses. The strategy includes systemwide policies on building design and efficiency, green-power generation, water efficiency programs, and performance measurement to meet energy-reduction and carbon-emission goals. Some campuses even have student-led green initiatives, including self-assessed fees to fund energy-efficiency projects.

A number of schools, such as the University of Illinois, The Ohio State University, and Rutgers University, are exploring a new approach to campus management: a “no net growth” policy. This means that new construction is to be offset by the demolition of buildings that are in poor condition and no longer meet the needs of the campus. The result is an environment that is more sustainable, both environmentally and financially.

While each represents a different strategy, these examples share important common features — long-term perspectives and comprehensive sustainability plans, broad-based campus engagement and funding supports; and a relentless commitment to questioning the status quo around campus planning, finance, energy, and the use of natural resources. That is ultimately what it will take for U.S. colleges to earn a higher grade for campus sustainability.

Wondering how green the schools you’re considering are? Check out their profiles using the Noodle college search tool, and ask them a question about how they’re promoting sustainability on campus.

Questions or comments about this article? Write to us at [email protected], or leave a comment below.