Report Release: Mapping a Pathway to Low-Carbon Campuses

Download Mapping a Pathway to Low-Carbon Campuses here.

October was an exciting and catalyzing time for sustainability, in particular for organizations and institutions wanting to enact climate action plans. A week after the ratification of the Paris agreement, thousands of campus sustainability professionals, students, faculty, and staff attended the 8th annual Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference. These sustainability professionals were revitalized, as a core part of their mission is now endorsed by an international agreement representing a fundamental shift in leadership prioritizing climate change and emphasizing the speed required to address it.

It’s promising that so many colleges and universities have set aggressive sustainability goals. However, only a small percentage of campuses are actually reporting progress toward those goals. And many of those have implemented only incremental energy efficiency and renewable energy steps. Very few campuses have enacted transformational change to ensure long-term success. In Rocky Mountain Institute’s recently released report, Mapping a Pathway to Low-Carbon Campuses, we draw on best-in-class examples to celebrate the common elements that define leaders, and provide integrative approaches that campuses can use to go deeper in their pursuit of low-carbon campuses—including aiming for zero net carbon and beyond.

Higher Education Is Prioritizing Sustainability

One reason this is such an exciting time for higher education is because of the current international validation for the role sustainability professionals have on campuses. Having been part of the campus sustainability community for the past five years, I have seen a shift in the conversation from “How can I get senior leadership to buy in to sustainability?” to “How can I implement sustainability faster so my campus can remain competitive?”

In fact, many sustainability offices have been validated by senior leadership, have grown in resources and staff, and now report to higher and more centralized decision makers. For example, Nurit Katz, the chief sustainably officer at UCLA, started as the sustainability coordinator with only one other staff member. Now, UCLA has five dedicated sustainability staff distributed across four departments, and Katz represents sustainability as a member of UCLA’s Executive Committee, full of senior leaders from across campus. Kate Nelson, the chief sustainability officer at the University of Milwaukee, recently received indefinite status—the staff equivalent to a professor’s tenure—because leadership saw the impact and value of her role. In particular, Nelson spearheaded an energy service performance contract that saved the university more than $12 million over the past 6 years.

Another exciting trend in higher education is that the students themselves are starting to prioritize sustainability when selecting a school. Of the 10,000 teenagers who participated in the Princeton Review’s 2016 Hopes & Worries survey, 61 percent of the participants said that information on a school’s environmental commitment would influence their decision on applying and attending the school. This is a powerful motivating factor for campuses considering that in the fall of 2016, over 20.5 million students were enrolled in higher education.

Fortunately for these students, hundreds of schools have been recognized for their sustainability commitments. Last month, Princeton Review released its Guide to 361 Green Colleges and AASHE published its 2016 Sustainable Campus Index to qualify and quantify the great work some campuses have achieved. In addition, most of these schools are part of the 665 schools that have signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and are recognized as leaders in higher education.

Helping Campuses Achieve Decarbonization

Although this transition is exciting, there is still a lot of work to do in the higher education sector. Of the colleges and universities that committed to the ACUPCC, only 465 have submitted Climate Action Plans—less than 10 percent of all campuses. And many of these are falling short of delivering on their aggressive climate goals. Phil Keuhn, a manager at RMI and co-author of the guide, points out that a lot of campuses have set very aggressive energy efficiency and decarbonization goals. But, after they have implemented the low-hanging fruit, such as lighting retrofits, many are struggling with the next steps to deliver on their goals.

This is where RMI’s Mapping a Pathway to Low-Carbon Campuses comes in. The guide builds off of RMI’s 2009 book Accelerating Campus Climate Initiatives and highlights best practices and insights for developing a plan as well as maximizing the feasibility and impact of that plan. Its is based on over 30 years of institutional knowledge aggregating RMI’s specialty of holistic systems-thinking methodology and lessons-learned from decades of working in various sectors, including direct engagements with multiple campuses. According to Chris McClurg, another co-author of the report and a member of RMI’s campus practice, “There are a lot of innovative campus case studies out there, but what I haven’t seen is the type of ‘RMI secret sauce’ of whole systems thinking, technical components mixed with recommendations on the right team, diversity of inputs, and change models specific to campuses.”

This report is in intended to support three main stakeholders involved in campus sustainability planning and/or implementation:

1) Senior leadership who want to develop and commit to a new climate action plan

2) Sustainability officers who are “in the middle” of a climate action plan and are looking for next steps after picking the low-hanging fruit

3) General campus faculty and staff that want to be involved with their campus sustainability initiatives or who are recruiting and aligning other staff to meet their campus climate goals

For these audiences, this report acts a quality assurance “check list” allowing staff to holistically integrate the right aspects of a climate action plan in order to implement them successfully. Best practices and case studies of success are abundant in higher education. The industry has proven it’s possible and that common barriers (such as lack of faculty buy-in or financing) can be overcome in any institution from small community colleges to large state universities. But successful long-term execution of their climate commitments is the greatest barrier facing campuses today.

An Integrated Approach Focusing on People, Policy, and Planning

Through RMI’s work with campuses and other organizations over the years, we have gathered insights on how to approach a climate action plan. The insights fall into three categories laid out in different sections in the report: people, policies, and planning. The people section addresses how people impact the development of a climate action plan and recommends ways to facilitate success. The policy section focuses on standardizing and strengthening campus policies that have the potential to impact the climate action plan. And the planning section focuses on analysis and approaches for developing the climate action plan.

  • People how-tos: Assemble a highly effective team, actively cultivate internal support, invest in resources to meet the campus’s evolving needs, and structure meetings to promote innovation.
  • Policy how-tos: Define the investment decision-making process and standardize and strengthen contracts.
  • Planning how-tos: Develop baselines, consider renewable energy technologies and contracts, plan and implement portfolio-wide projects, increase the speed and accuracy of plan development, reduce loads to reduce equipment capacity, and capitalize on the incremental costs from planned maintenance and renovations.

To ensure a well-rounded approach, the focus must be on people associated with developing and implementing the plan, as well as on those who must ensure persistence of performance after implementation; on campus policies that facilitate successful implementation of the plan; and on how the plan itself is developed, refined, and implemented.

“RMI’s Climate Action Plan guide is full of the type of comprehensive and systems-thinking insights you expect from RMI and that are critical to successfully implementing sustainability in higher education,” says Katz. “This guide is a high-level and refreshing reminder for sustainability professionals on how to holistically approach climate action planning.”

Plenty of colleges and universities have been among the first innovators, early adopters, and champions of addressing climate change. But the rest of higher education needs a critical acceleration in addressing climate change in conjunction with the Paris Agreement. The 4,726 colleges and universities in the U.S. represent over 5 billion square feet totaling over $353 billion in revenue with $6 billion in energy costs alone. With the decreasing costs of energy efficiency and renewable technologies and the established access to financing mechanisms (such as energy savings performance contracts and green revolving funds), we are beyond the proof-of-concept phase.

Now the challenge is to shift carbon action planning from near-term projects focused on immediate and tangible results to a clearly defined pathway to achieve aggressive and transformational long-term goals. It is crucial to make the successful implementation of long-term carbon action plans ubiquitous across the higher education sector to arm and inspire the next wave of leaders. RMI’s guide is intended to catalyze decision makers and sustainability professionals to help realize that vision.

Download Mapping a Pathway to Low-Carbon Campuses here.