Carbon emissions per square foot have dropped 14 percent since 2007 at colleges and universities across the US, according to a report by Sightlines and the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute.
State of Sustainability in Higher Education 2016, based on data from 377 schools, attributes the decrease in emissions to a decline in energy consumption as well as a shift away from coal and other dirtier-burning fuels to renewable energy sources and natural gas.
Sightlines is a company that helps member colleges and universities benchmark and analyze facility performance. This is the second annual study produced in collaboration by the two organizations.
University of Minnesota, for example, which is a Sightlines member school, is halfway to meeting its goal of reducing campus carbon emissions 50 percent by 2020, compared to 2008. The university achieved this emissions reduction by recycling office furniture, replacing lights in parking garages and planting gardens on roofs, Minnesota Daily reports.
Despite lower emissions, the Sightlines-UNH report says campus carbon footprints may be under-reported by more than 30 percent.
Current international carbon reporting standards, to which campuses generally adhere, have traditionally given an incomplete and inconsistent representation of an institution’s carbon emissions, by making the reporting of all upstream and downstream emissions voluntary, the report says. Most campuses currently report few if any emissions associated with purchased goods, construction, capital reinvestment or demolition — and this may lead to under-reporting of carbon emissions by as much as one-third.
However, new tools and standards are evolving to encourage and support collection of this missing data. The report argues that higher education is in a position to help lead a shift globally, across sectors, by engaging in this challenge.
Other findings include:
Sustainability policies are lacking when it comes to entire building lifecycle. Formal policies that promote sustainability and help minimize environmental impact are common for new construction projects, but the study found these policies are largely absent for other phases of the building lifecycle.
For example, 80 percent of Second Nature Carbon Commitment institutions have committed all new construction to a minimum of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver. Such formal policies, however, are not yet widely adopted for the daily operations, capital reinvestment or demolition of buildings. This represents a missed opportunity to control costs while adding value.
Opportunities abound for further gains in sustainability. Sustainability performance has improved sector-wide, but the report notes that significant potential remains.
For example, there is opportunity to pay greater attention to sustainability during capital reinvestment and demolition phases, as the need to invest into existing buildings is projected to increase substantially in the coming years. Moreover, limiting net space growth may be an important approach to managing the campus impact and increasing overall institutional sustainability — from both environmental and financial perspectives.