Education institutions are developing sustainability programs to address the effects that their operations have on climate change and other environmental issues. This effort can be attributed to pressures from unpredictable energy markets; sustainability ratings from groups such as the Princeton Review and the Sustainable Endowments Institute; new and impending greenhouse-gas emissions regulations; and pressures to join organized advocacy groups such as the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).

Many successful sustainability programs are in place; although all of these programs share some fundamental characteristics, specific issues such as campus culture, values and monetary constraints have led some schools down unique paths toward sustainability.

Sustainability team

The best sustainability programs develop synergies from existing campus resources. For instance, waste vegetable oil from dining halls can be used as fuel for the campus transportation fleet; storm water can be captured and reused to irrigate lawns, and “energy hog” buildings can be tuned properly to generate savings that in turn can be reinvested into on-campus renewable energy projects. For programs to be successful, campus administrators need to foster new types of collaborations across departments.

Many schools are developing interdepartmental campus sustainability teams. With student, faculty and staff representatives from groups such as operations, finance and academics, these teams often are cut from a real cross section of the campus.

Some campuses have leveraged existing interdepartmental teams that have experience working together. Others increasingly are turning to a new breed of administrators called campus sustainability professionals. These professionals are skilled at facilitating interdisciplinary approaches to sustainability, and can help build consensus for the program's goals and priorities. In addition, support from the top combined with project success and confidence from management is required for sustainability to thrive.

A key first task of a sustainability team is to conduct a campus sustainability assessment. These assessments combine metrics such as recycling rates, energy usage (by building if possible), and greenhouse-gas emissions with additional qualitative evaluations of program opportunities. This creates the basis for establishing definable goals that are supported by appropriate programmatic strategies and metrics. Sustainability assessments enable schools to define what sustainability means to them, chart a path to meet their goals, and create a baseline to gauge their efforts.

A recent focus has been on defining similar methodologies for the more focused, calculable metrics. Methods such as the World Resources Institute and the Climate Registry's Greenhouse Gas Protocols, or the National Recycling Coalition's “RecycleMania” competition are good examples of these efforts.

Strategic planning

Since its inception two years ago, the ACUPCC has become the impetus behind a series of strategic plans that use greenhouse-gas inventories as their baseline metric. This has spurred a new set of sustainability metrics used to prioritize projects, such as accounting standards that evaluate “cost and returns per metric ton of carbon” from energy-efficiency projects.

Harvard University, for example, has demonstrated a consistent return on investment from its energy and resource conservation projects of more than 30 percent. Projects such as commissioning (or retro-commissioning) buildings, replacing lighting and upgrading heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are profitable, and have a significant effect on greenhouse-gas emissions.

The ACUPCC's goal of “carbon neutrality” also has opened new, harder questions about sustainability planning for campuses, and colleges and universities have embraced the challenge. It provides an opportunity to engage all resources, academic and administrative, to use the campus as a kind of sustainability laboratory to develop solutions that can be shared beyond the campus gates.

As campuses take this planning challenge head on, they are beginning to consider the relationship between the “hard” metrics of energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions, and the “soft” goals of culture and identity. For instance, a new construction project that effectively integrates green aspects into its design can be considered to have value far beyond its LEED rating or energy score. For instance, if students witness storm-water capture through green roofs, the use of daylight instead of artificial light, or the production of electricity through photo-voltaic panels or wind turbines, they may gain a greater sense of possibility and ownership for their schools.

Observe and report

Sustainability assessments enable campuses to define, measure and prioritize their efforts, and they provide a means to track progress over time. Those hard metrics such as net present value per metric ton of carbon equivalent, thousands of British thermal units (kbtu) per square feet of building space, or numbers of students that sign on to sustainability pledges provide yardsticks of progress that help sustainability teams stay on track. Successful programs provide the sustainability team with a measurable picture of their efforts in each area and enable the team to make informed decisions on all sustainability initiatives.

Good tracking and reporting systems add an appropriate weighting and balance to sustainability metrics and prevent any one activity from taking center stage. “Triple-bottom-line” accounting, which is used nicely in the University of British Columbia's annual report, provides equal weight to social, environmental and economic aspects of sustainability. This approach can help balance reporting and ensure that all stakeholders have an equal seat at the table.

Campus sustainability no longer is considered a fringe movement championed only by student environmental activists. Administrators are beginning to understand that sustainability can generate economic value and improve campus morale and reputation. It also may help retain committed employees, recruit passionate students and make a positive impact on society.

  • Read the "Surveys and lessons learned" sidebar to learn about recent reports and their implications.
  • Crowley, MS, LEED AP, is program manager, Pathways to Campus Sustainability, for Environmental Health & Engineering, Inc., a Needham, Mass.-based environmental and engineering consulting firm specializing in the development of campus sustainability programs. He can be reached at mcrowley@eheinc.com or (800)825-5343.

Surveys and lessons learned

National Wildlife Federation's 2008 Campus Sustainability Survey

National Wildlife Federation (NWF) reported that more than 50 percent of colleges and universities surveyed for its "Campus Environment 2008" report having a staff person dedicated to sustainability on campus; 76 percent of those surveyed reported that they developed their sustainability programs primarily because they "think environmental sustainability programs fit the culture and values of the campus." This marks a significant milestone in the ecological identity of campus communities.

Harvard University Green Campus Revolving Loan Fund

Harvard University has been funding on-campus energy and resource conservation projects through a revolving loan fund since 2002. The fund's operation is simple and direct: capital is provided to fund sustainability projects, and the savings generated from those projects are reinvested into the fund. Harvard has invested more than $12 million in projects since the loan fund's inception, and has maintained an estimated return on investment of 25 to 30 percent.

Duke University: "Charting a Path to Greenhouse Gas Reductions"

Duke was one of the first universities to apply the metric of "Net Present Value per Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent avoided" to climate action planning. In a paper presented at Ball State University's Greening of the Campus VI in 2005, Duke University's Environmental Sustainability Coordinator Sam Hummel showed that this metric can address the "question of how to compare the relative benefit of strategies as diverse as increasing carpool incentives and burning more natural gas in the steam plant."