Battle fatigue, large-institution neutrality, and social justice: tips and takeaways from “navigating the steps to climate neutrality: getting started”

On May 20, GreenerU hosted the first in a discussion series aimed at collaborating to overcome common institutional hurdles to achieving climate neutrality. The following are tips and takeaways from our discussion with representatives from public universities, private colleges, and independent schools.

Challenge: how can you prioritize climate action and sustainability efforts on campus when staff is routinely shuffled to different reporting relationships?

We had several good suggestions during our peer discussion on May 20 on this very challenging problem—trying to stay relevant when a new administration reorganizes departments, or just plain staff cuts send sustainability to the back seat, or have backed away from their original commitments to meet their climate neutrality goal.

One suggestion was to create cross-disciplinary teams to create structure and increase awareness at the leadership level. For example, create an advisory board for your sustainability efforts, maybe even including institutional board members. Found a steering committee to spread the ownership and overview of sustainability across departments, ensuring buy-in, feedback, and support across key stakeholder groups. A steering committee could have a charter of tracking and measuring sustainability efforts on campus, for example, supporting your efforts in gathering data for an AASHE STARS inventory, and reviewing progress on your greenhouse gas emissions inventory. The group could also identify aspects of existing sustainability and climate action plan goals that can be achieved collaboratively.

Office green teams are another way to infuse the spirit of sustainability across campus. Harvard University’s Office for Sustainability published a blog post on ten tips for a successful green team. A gaggle of green teams across campus can host a summit of chairs to talk about ways to make or keep sustainability an integral part of campus priorities.

The University of Vermont has sustainability ambassadors across faculty and staff, promoting sustainability across the organization. UVM also has a Sustainable Campus Fund of $10 per student per semester, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue to aid in funding green projects on campus. And the University of Florida has partnered with the nonprofit We Are Neutral to create the Neutral UF Coalition to help the institution reach its goal of neutrality by 2025.

Another suggestion was to create a loose, grassroots coalition of individuals based on topics of interest—through a lecture or film series, for example, followed by facilitated discussion—to attract and create communities who may be interested in engaging further in sustainability action.

Two important parts of building up buy-in are a clear commitment from faculty and aligning  sustainability with your institution’s mission. One successful example of this is Cornell University, where 30% of its faculty is engaged with sustainability and climate action research, creating a clear link to why living-lab and sustainable operations should align with the institution’s overall priorities.

Challenge: how do you measure behavior change and the efficacy of behavior change programming?

There are many, many options here; the following are just three.

  1. Surveys. University of Connecticut is one example of an institution performing sustainability literacy assessments among its student body. Sample questions are here.

  2. Incentive programs. Stanford University has a program called My Cardinal Green, a combination of student sustainability surveys, action items with a point system, rewards, and dashboards for individuals. This program not only measures and rewards behavior change and impacts on campus, but provides the University with valuable data points for ongoing tracking efforts.

    Similarly, Santa Clara University has a Scouting-like program with nine collectible sustainability badges, complete with eleven different Playbooks providing action items to different campus population types, depending on role. These engagement efforts give the University a databank of participation efforts and keeps the effort visible with embroidered adhesive badges that can be affixed to portable coffee mugs, laptops, and more.

  3. Before-and-after metrics. Many efforts wouldn’t be successful without behavior change communications and engagement efforts! And most waste- and energy-reduction efforts can be tracked, such as food waste reduction in dining halls, move-out, trash, and electricity use.

    One such program at Brown University showed tangible results of a behavior-change program. GreenerU worked with Brown on the Dorm Energy-Efficiency Project (DEEP) to discourage students from leaving windows open during the heating season. The study compared the effects of behavior change communications (signage, events, engagement) in two dormitories undergoing energy-efficiency measures with two comparable dormitories with no awareness communications efforts—and the results were dramatic.
Challenge: are there any large public institutions that have achieved climate neutrality—somewhere besides smaller liberal arts colleges without energy-intensive research and laboratory components?

This is certainly a tough one. To date, only 11 higher education institutions have self-identified as having achieved climate or carbon neutrality (see upcoming GreenerU blog post on the subject). Liberal arts institutions with smaller campuses and different resources have so far been more successful at reaching neutrality, though all are still purchasing carbon offsets in some form or another.

For large, research-based public institutions, carbon or climate neutrality is an uphill climb for Scopes 1 and 2 emissions. You have a large campus with energy-intensive buildings and complex operations. But there is one that has made it to the top: University of California Merced is the first public research university in the country to achieve carbon neutrality, which the institution had independently verified. Every UC Merced building on campus is LEED certified, and other efforts include “prioritizing student-led programs to reduce greenhouse gas impacts in buildings, developing high-performance buildings, installing renewable energy generation onsite, making clean power purchases and using carbon offsets,” according to UC Merced’s press announcement.

The rest of the University of California system has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2025, aiming to be the first research university to achieve carbon neutrality. Their efforts fall into four categories: buying wholesale electricity, investing in campus energy efficiency and renewable energy, procuring natural gas and biogas, and, essentially, buying offsets.

Arizona State University—which achieved an AASHE STARS Platinum rating in 2020—achieved climate neutrality for on-campus operations (Scope 1) in 2019 and purchased energy (Scope 2) via renewable energy credits, and has designs on full neutrality by 2025 (University of California, look out!). One of ASU’s most significant achievements has been major investments in on-site solar to the tune of more than 50 MWdc.

As several states have established climate and clean energy goals, public institutions in those states are no doubt looking at tackling the challenges of achieving neutrality in some shape or form down the road through long-term investments into your infrastructure.

When it comes to setting and reaching a climate neutrality goal, it is important to identify your institution’s scope and where you will have the most impact: your buildings and operations, while also supporting the community by reducing your indirect emissions such as commuting, travel, and other Scope 3 emissions.

Challenge: how can we integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into sustainability initiatives?

Sustainability is increasingly recognized as a social justice issue, as those affected by climate change are disproportionately underserved, minority, low-income populations. The nonprofit organization Climate Justice Alliance has a page of grassroots leaders and experienced movement builders available to interview, host on a panel, and/or speak at a conference on issues pertaining to environmental justice.

One GreenerU client, Portland Community College, is gearing up to publish its 2021-2025 Climate Action Plan: Resiliency, Equity and Education for Just Transition, the college’s five-year roadmap to climate justice. PCC’s broader institutional mission is to support student success by delivering access to quality education while advancing economic development and promoting sustainability in a collaborative culture of diversity, equity and inclusion, and its climate action plan vision is an “equity-focused transition to a resilient, thriving society with net zero greenhouse gas emissions that addresses historical injustices, through education and empowering a diverse community to engage in climate action.” You can read more about PCC’s social justice-focused climate action plan in an upcoming blog post on GreenerU’s website.

Just as AASHE’s 2020 virtual conference theme was “Mobilizing for a Just Transition,” AASHE STARS has increasingly incorporated the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals that are the heart of its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. PCC and other higher education institutions are using the U.N. SDGs as a metric by which to measure goals and strategies to ensure that sustainability, economic, and social justice are inextricably linked.

Challenge: how do we prioritize sustainability initiatives in the built environment when aesthetics and value engineering often win out?

Sustainability and aesthetics can be a “yes and” rather than an “either or.” One suggestion (that we are thinking of doing at GreenerU) is to host a virtual tour and discussion of net-zero buildings, such as the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College and the Bullitt Center in Seattle. We think these are incredible and inspiring buildings that prove that no one has to choose between aesthetics, healthy buildings, and sustainability.

Brooks School’s Arts Center is a unique example of a partnership between the builder and GreenerU, where we were able to get in on the ground floor of project development and create an energy-efficient system during key decision points of the construction process. (The building itself is quite beautiful, too!)

As cost is almost always a major factor in building design, pointing out that the long-term costs of building operations are typically greater than the first costs associated with a building’s total life cycle. According to the Whole Building Design Guide, “net-zero energy cost is perhaps the simplest metric to use: it means that the building has an energy utility bill of $0 over the course of a year.” Multiply the costs of what a typical building’s utility bills are over a 25- to 30-year lifespan (at a minimum) and you start to get a sense of how much more affordable a net-zero building actually is in the long run.

Challenge: we’re struggling from cost cuts and pandemic fatigue. How do we keep our campus community engaged?

Just as we mentioned above about social justice being intertwined with climate justice, sustainability and fighting climate change are increasingly urgent parts of other institutional priorities. Aligning sustainability efforts with the institution’s mission, teaching and learning goals, and other priorities will weave those efforts together to help institutional leadership (administration, trustees) continue to advocate with you when meeting their goals.

As mentioned above regarding decentralizing sustainability activities on campus to share responsibility, having an active steering committee of staff, board, advisory members, faculty, and students can activate and integrate “soft power” networks and help influence decision-making on all levels. We always hear that students are the greatest agents of change on campuses. Combining that energy with seasoned campus changemakers among faculty and staff can make a major difference.

Be sure to celebrate your successes! When we’re all climbing uphill, it can be exhausting to keep looking at the incline. If you’ve established baseline data and have regular benchmarks, you have a clear set of metrics to reflect upon and find wins. High-fives, awards, victory laps, and other creative reminders that you’ve made progress will help keep everyone’s eyes on the prize.

Our discussion series, “Navigating the Steps to Climate Neutrality,” continues through the summer. Join this community of change agents and share your successes and challenges! 

  Back to Articles

The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.