US Universities Aim for Carbon Neutral Campuses

Aug 20, 2009

As college students return to school, they will be discovering subtle changes designed to reduce their climate footprints, from new low-energy lighting and renewable power sources to the removal of cafeteria trays to cut back on wash time.

In recent years, universities across the United States have taken it upon themselves to reduce their environmental impact. Their students, fully aware that climate change will be one of the greatest challenges of their generation, and outside sources such as the College Sustainability Report Card and Princeton Review are carefully scrutinizing and encouraging their efforts.

So far, 650 schools – home to about a third of all college students nationwide – have signed the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment to become carbon neutral and produce zero net emissions, coming close to creating the nation's "first sector-wide commitment to climate neutrality," says Toni Nelson, program director for ACUPCC. And many prominent schools that have not signed, including most of the Ivy League and Stanford University, already have strong sustainability programs in place.

"One of the driving forces behind the commitment is that if you can graduate climate-literate graduates in every area – people who are going to become leaders in business, government, non-profit organizations and legal systems, etc. – if you can get a shift happening in their education and climate-literacy, then you shift the whole culture around climate," Nelson said.

Last week, administrators met at the ACUPCC's annual Climate Leadership Summit, where former President Bill Clinton was the keynote speaker. The university leaders have pledged to make an inventory of their emissions, draft a plan for becoming carbon neutral, begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions even before finalizing their climate plan, make information on the plan and its progress available to the public, and integrate sustainability into the curriculum. It's an important contribution: 1 to 3 percent of U.S. emissions come from colleges and universities.

Evidence of the improvements can be found in the three-year-old College Sustainability Report Card, which grades the 300 schools with the largest endowments in the United States and Canada on several areas. The universities are judged on the administration's policies, emissions, dining policies, green building practices, student involvement, transportation, shareholder engagement, and investment transparency and priorities. While only six schools received an A-, the top grade, last year, 15 schools earned it this year.

The sustainability practices of schools range from innovative projects in alternative energy to mundane practices like removing trays from cafeterias to save tens of thousands of gallons of water and the energy that would normally go into washing them.

For instance, Ball State University in Indiana has broken ground on a geothermal heating and cooling system that will eventually allow the university to shut down its coal plant. The University of Minnesota Morris aims to achieve energy self-sufficiency by 2010 with wind and biomass power. And the University of New Hampshire is receiving up to 85% of its energy from the methane emitted by a nearby landfill.

The University of Vermont, which earned an A- on its Green Report Card, is working on sustainability on many levels. Gioia Thompson, the Director of the University of Vermont's Office of Sustainability, says the school addresses climate in four main areas: academics, which includes teaching, research and outreach; campus culture, which entails an Eco-Reps program of students teaching other students about environmental practices; operations, which comprises energy efficiency, clean energy and green building; public outreach at the local, state, regional and national levels; and accountability, for which the school posts public information about its greenhouse gas emissions.

The university increased its square footage between 1990 and 2008 by 37% but reduced its emissions by square foot 11% with energy efficiency and green building projects. The students voted on creating a clean energy fund, financed with a $10 fee per student per semester and totaling $200,000 a year. This fall, for the first time, a committee of mostly students will allocate the funds towards renewable energy projects.

The campus, with 10,000 undergraduates, 1,800 graduate students and 1,300 faculty members, is a sizable force in the town of Burlington, whose population is fewer than 40,000. UVM's office of sustainability began as an environmental council in 1996 and the city created a climate action plan in 2000. Both are now coming out with new plans.

"There's some cross fertilization with students working on the city program, and the city's efforts for addressing climate change of course incorporate the university," says Thompson. "So we have that town and gown collaboration."

The push for colleges to lead the way to energy sustainability extends well beyond the United States.

Last month, the United Nations Environment Program announced that six universities – College of the Atlantic in Maine; Evergreen State College in Washington state; Middlebury College in Vermont; Malaga University in Spain; Tongji University in China; and the University of the West of England – had signed on to spearhead its new Climate Neutral Network initiative to promote global action to decarbonize global economies.

British lawmakers are also discussing a plan to take that effort further in the UK and tie public funding for universities to each school's success in meeting carbon reduction targets.

Here's a look at the College Sustainability Report Card's top 15 North American schools:

  • Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio
  • University of New Hampshire, Durham, N.H.
  • University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC
  • Columbia University, New York
  • Dickinson College, Carlisle, Penn.
  • Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vt.
  • University of Washington, Seattle
  • Brown University, Providence, R.I.
  • Carleton College, Northfield, MN
  • University of Colorado, Boulder, Colo.
  • Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.
  • University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
  • Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.
  • University of Vermont, Burlington, Vt.


Princeton Review also released its second annual green rankings in late July, rating schools on the healthiness and sustainability of campus life, environmental education, and the school's overall commitment to environmental issues. Its honor roll included:

  • Arizona State University, Tempe
  • Bates College, Lewiston, Maine
  • Binghamton University, Binghamton, N.Y.
  • College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine
  • Colorado College, Colorado Springs
  • Dickinson College, Carlisle, Penn.
  • Evergreen State College, Olympia, Wash.
  • Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta
  • Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Middlebury College, Middlebury Vt.
  • Northeastern University, Boston
  • University of California at Berkeley
  • University of New Hampshire, Durham
  • University of Washington, Seattle
  • Yale University, New Haven, Conn.


Sierra Club today released its own list of "cool schools" based on their efforts to fight climate change and create sustainability.

  • University of Colorado at Boulder
  • University of Washington at Seattle
  • Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vt.
  • University of Vermont, Burlington
  • College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine
  • Evergreen State College, Olympia, Wash.
  • University of California at Santa Cruz
  • University of California at Berkeley
  • University of California at Los Angeles
  • Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio
  • Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
  • University of New Hampshire, Durham
  • Arizona State University at Tempe
  • Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
  • University of Florida at Gainesville
  • Bates College, Lewiston, Maine
  • Willamette University, Salem, Ore.
  • Warren Wilson College, Asheville, N.C.
  • Dickinson College, Carlisle, Penn.
  • New York University


See also:

LA Community College System Heads for Energy Independence

Start-Ups Rise to Push Solar on College Campuses

Universities Start Tailoring Degrees to Green Jobs

Why are Politicians Blocking the Way to Campus Sustainability?

11,000 Students Flood Washington with Demand for Bold Climate Action


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