CoolPlanet: The CA-CP Blog

State of the Campus Meets State of the Union on Climate Action

Rebecca Owens

By Rebecca Owens, 2013 Clean Air-Cool Planet Climate Fellow

Yesterday, President Barack Obama made a historic announcement about a new climate action plan for the United States. His speech included many references about the interrelated and rapidly accruing  repercussions of climate change, from sea level rise and flooding, and stronger storm patterns like Hurricane Sandy, to diminishing icecaps and snowpack, more frequent droughts and fires, higher temperatures, and scarcer clean drinking water. Such impacts challenge our infrastructure, food systems, public health, tourism, national security, real estate, and overall economic and social well-being. The prospect for a resilient and thriving future as well as present is at stake and America’s lauded land of opportunity will be limited if opportunities to adapt are not identified and progressed by leaders at all levels.

It was no mistake that President Obama made his stage an institution of higher education, presenting the climate action plan from Georgetown University’s campus. He has the ears of the next generation of climate leaders and these students will be the ones working to develop the regulations that are needed to implement rules limiting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from existing and new power plants, for example. Obama reminded us that “about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from our power plants,” yet, until now, coal- and gas-fired utilities have not had any federal limits to their GHG emissions, while other chemicals that the EPA regulates are limited.

Utility plants and fuel choices might not be on the minds of many students now, unless they are lucky enough to be at a school with sustainability required in general education requirements, of course! That said, students are adding green schools to their application criteria, and campus administrators see this. Great strides have been made in the last decade by campuses in setting pollution limits by committing to carbon neutrality goals and their own climate action plans. Higher education is not waiting for federal action. They have always seen themselves as stewards and pioneers of the future and increasingly, sustainability is regarded as integral to business continuity, especially as higher education costs rise and student enrollment becomes more global and mobile. By framing carbon neutrality as a matter of fiscal and social responsibility, campuses are leading by example in addressing local environmental quality and global climate stability.

How do we truly know that higher education is making progress? Because their impacts are being tracked and measured at a breadth seen in few other sectors. Over 670 institutions have formalized and agreed to carbon neutrality goals and reporting through the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), for example, with over 500 submitting climate action plans to date. Since 2004, more than 2,000 campuses have used the Clean Air-Cool Planet (CA-CP) Campus Carbon Calculator, which further supports accountability and standardization of GHG accounting methodologies. GHG inventorying, carbon neutrality goals, and public reporting supported by CA-CP and ACUPCC in turn feed into overall sustainability tracking initiatives like the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). While not all ACUPCC, STARS, and CA-CP users overlap, and the latter do not necessarily report publicly, this set of data and the sharing of best practices in carbon reduction strategies that it promotes is for the most part highly accessible—and interesting!

For the past month, I have had the privilege as a Climate Fellow at CA-CP to go behind the scenes and delve into this information.  A more recent online version of the calculator, called CarbonMAP was just launched and the focus of my project has been to collaborate with the ACUPCC and our CarbonMAP partner, Sightlines LLC, to identify significant data types, metrics for comparison, and trends or patterns among the institutions that have transitioned to using CarbonMAP. For example, are emissions per campus user increasing, and on a track that projects success in meeting carbon neutrality target years? What types of institutions are making the most progress? Does it seem to be correlated with higher endowments or a certain region in the U.S., and if so, what organizational or public structures and policies might be enabling or hindering these factors? Our objective is to continue to add to the public pool of knowledge and illustrate a more holistic and detailed picture of campus carbon reduction that we will share in a “State of the Campus Report” to be published this fall. The analytical framework can be updated and enriched as additional campuses aggregate their various years of GHG inventory data by transitioning to CarbonMAP, instead of relying on manual input of data into Excel files each year. It will also evolve as reporting of new metrics matures, such as those which might be derived from another Climate Fellow’s work with CHEFS and food product life cycle impacts on campus carbon footprints.

Speaking of new metrics, my preliminary review of data categories that can be analyzed from available data, and comparison to what is reported by STARS and ACUPCC, suggests that CA-CP has the unique opportunity to report on trends in multimodal transportation and the correlation to transportation (Scope 3) emissions reductions on campus. Another question that can be asked is if a ratio of LEED certified or equivalent buildings seems to significantly improve campus emissions profiles from building energy use. We also hope to show how campus funding mechanisms like green revolving loan funds (GRF) relate to carbon reductions. GRFs are seen as a key strategy for campus sustainability and the Sustainable Endowments Institute recently suspended its Report Card initiative in order to focus solely on the Billion Dollar Green Challenge, which CA-CP is a founding advisor for. By verifying GRFs’ effectiveness and identifying other key variables, common opportunities, and challenges between campuses, as well as by helping institutions to benchmark themselves, the CA-CP State of the Campus project will enable decision-makers to further focus and prioritize campus sustainability strategies.

When I originally set out to write this blog, I intended to compare sustainability performance metric categories being reported by individual campuses to the aggregated categories under review for my project, but I couldn’t resist tying the current momentum in campus sustainability to the greater context of U.S. policy. It looks like I will be writing a part two follow-up on new trends in sustainability reporting, giving you a sneak peek into some infographics from my analysis!

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