Energy use is down in U.S. higher education institutions, according to a report released recently by Sightlines and the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Sustainability Institute. But there is still a lot of room for improvement.
The amount of energy consumed in the operations of higher education institutions in the U.S. has declined by 8% and related emissions per square foot are down 14 percent from a 2007 baseline,
“We are pleased to see that the data shows continued progress by institutions of higher education in reducing the sector’s contribution to climate change,“ says Nancy Targett, UNH’s Provost. “Leadership in sustainability has always been important to UNH, both in our practice and in helping other institutions—so we’re excited about the ways in which the report’s findings can advance a vital conversation about how to rapidly accelerate that leadership to achieve greater sustainability across higher education.”
The report, entitled, “State of Sustainability in Higher Education 2016,” is the second annual study conducted in collaboration with the two organizations. Sightlines is a Gordian company and leader in facilities intelligence and analysis for higher education institutions. The UNH Sustainability Institute integrates diverse perspectives, disciplines and knowledge to address sustainability’s grand challenges.
The study was based specifically on data from 377 colleges and universities that provide information to Sightlines, the largest third-party verified database of higher education facilities data in North America. These institutions represent different Carnegie classes, representing all geographic regions of the U.S., and have a collective 1.5 billion gross square feet (GSF) of facilities assets. The database is comprised of 59% public institutions and 41% private institutions.
Key findings from the study included:
- Currently, campus carbon footprints may be under-reported by more than 30%
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. Most campuses currently report few if any emissions associated with purchased goods, construction, capital reinvestment or demolition. Data in the study suggests that this may lead to under-reporting of carbon emissions by as much as one-third—which means significant lost opportunities for leadership and impact when targeting institutional greenhouse gas reductions. New tools and standards are evolving to encourage and support collection of this missing data—and the report argues that higher education is in a position to help lead a shift globally, across sectors, by engaging in this challenge.
- 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 instance, 80% 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.
“Over the past two decades, colleges and universities have embraced numerous programs to minimize their environmental impacts, and campus sustainability leaders have made great strides,” says Mark Schiff, president of Sightlines. “Our State of Sustainability report aims to quantify and celebrate the sector’s progress, as well as outline specific and actionable opportunities for continuous improvement. To that end, this year’s report analyzes the available data concerning campus efforts to reduce environmental impact during each phase of the building lifecycle—from construction to operation to capital reinvestment to demolition.”