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Business Officer Magazine

Bending the Carbon Curve

Commitments to climate neutrality are reversing the trajectory of campus greenhouse gas emissions. A bigger challenge: leveraging this success for other sectors.

By Karla Hignite

*For more than a decade, higher education institutions have been steadily adding to the collective body of sustainability knowledge, using their campuses as test beds for everything from building and lighting retrofits and renewable energy development to efforts aimed at zero waste and localized food systems. An April 2006 Business Officer article posed this question: Will sustainability take root? There seems no doubt that it not only has, but also is in full bloom on campuses across the nation. The necessary question at this juncture is: Where must sustainability grow from here?

It's been five years since the initial cohort of higher education institution presidents signed the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), pledging to move their institutions toward climate neutrality. Many metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions reductions later, leaders are encouraged by their progress and emboldened to press on. When ACUPCC institution representatives convene at the network's leadership summit this month, it will be a celebration of what colleges and universities have accomplished to date and a collective call to action for the years ahead (see sidebar, "The Next Five Years" ). On the agenda are questions of how to connect sustainability education with the unfolding job market, and how institutions can provide research and demonstrate innovation beyond their campus borders.

Read An Online Extra

For details about AASHE and its STAR reporting system, see "STARS Turns Five" in Business Officer Plus at

Since only presidents can convene faculty, staff, trustees, and students to lead the cultural change necessary for institutional transformation, their leadership is critical, as it enables all aspects of the campus to work together to ensure plans are comprehensive and successfully implemented, says Anthony Cortese, president of Second Nature, the lead supporting organization of the ACUPCC. Likewise, because the scope, scale, and speed of the challenges posed by climate change demand an unprecedented level of collaboration, the value of this commitment is the collective effort of higher education to work together rather than compete around issues that no one institution can solve on its own, he adds.

"This commitment represents unprecedented leadership by the higher education sector, which is the first and only major U.S. sector with a significant number of its members to commit to climate neutrality," notes Cortese. Timothy P. White, chancellor of the University of California-Riverside and chair of the ACUPCC Steering Committee, says: "By making this publicly accountable and actionable commitment on behalf of their institutions, higher education leaders are sending a strong signal to society that climate change and other large-scale unsustainable practices pose a real and urgent threat, and that colleges and universities are working together not only to model sustainable behavior, but also to provide the knowledge and educated graduates necessary for society to do the same."

85K metric tons

Fewer greenhouse gas emissions annually with the geothermal heating and cooling system

Ball State University, Indiana

Whatever else may become part of the national political conversations this year, concerns about future energy supplies and the role of higher education in producing a well-trained workforce are likely to remain key themes. At a time when the skills and knowledge needed for a strong economy and a thriving society would seem to intersect so clearly with what is required for a healthy planet, how will higher education expand its proven leadership in this arena?

This article highlights some of the achievements of institutions that have made the commitment to climate neutrality and outlines next steps for the ACUPCC as it simultaneously seeks greater participation from the higher education community and focuses on leveraging the sector's success to engage and influence local communities, governments, and other industry sectors.

Striking Geothermal Gold

By far the boldest move made by Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, in response to its climate action plan has been the wholesale reworking of the campus district heating and cooling system, says Robert Koester, professor of architecture and director of the university's Center for Energy Research, Education, and Service. This has entailed replacing four coal boilers along with five centrifugal chillers with ground-source heat pump chiller technology. Today, all 47 campus buildings are being cooled by the geothermal system, and about 20 buildings currently can be heated with the district system.

Once the entire campus has been converted, all buildings will be fully heated and cooled with renewable geothermal technology. The ultimate completion date is dependent on various factors that include financing. "This will be the largest geothermal installation in the country and will yield a net operational savings of $2 million per year," says Koester. "We anticipate that once fully operational, our system will cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 85,000 metric tons per year—nearly one half of our baseline measure." It will also allow the university to avoid any future costs associated with EPA regulations affecting on-site coal combustion, since this will no longer occur, explains Koester.

One half

Carbon footprint cut with transition to combined heat and power wood-chip biomass plant

Green Mountain College, Vermont

Outlined in Ball State's climate action plan is a series of stair-step emission-reduction goals over the next 35 years. In addition to conveying the university's other priority actions, leaders are using the climate action plan as a communication tool to show how various projects translate into reductions per square foot of building space and per student. Those calculations help translate the outcomes into meaningful comparisons that everyone can understand, says Koester.

Once the district-scale system is fully operational and the university is no longer burning coal, the next stages of reduction will involve the continued dialing down of demand through improved building envelope and mechanical system efficiencies, changes in building occupant behavior, and the replacement of grid-based electrical power with grid-based wind energy and on-site solar conversion. While the university has set 2050 as its outer limit for achieving neutrality, leaders fully expect to reach that goal sooner, says Koester.

Formalized Funding

For Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania, signing the ACUPCC galvanized the college's sustainability efforts, says David McInally, executive vice president and treasurer. In addition to hiring a full-time sustainability coordinator, one of leadership's first actions was to convince the board to include Allegheny's climate action plan as an explicit goal in the institution's strategic plan. "We knew doing so would give our plan seriousness as a funding priority," says McInally. The integrated approach to financing the college's climate action plan employs a combination of funds from annual maintenance, operating budget, capital finance programs, and fundraising. Resources are devoted to the climate action plan, with savings realized annually through reduced utility expenses, explains McInally. Because savings may not always equal the investment in certain long-term payback projects, continued support is required from all levels of the campus governance system-further reinforcing the commitment as an institutional and funding priority.


Number of electric vehicle charging stations on campus

Western Michigan University

The adoption of environmental guiding principles and revised project management guidelines have likewise made it easier to charge down the list of actions needed to reduce emissions, says McInally. As of January 2011, the college also began purchasing wind power for 100 percent of campus electricity needs via renewable energy credits (RECs). "This alone has decreased our emissions significantly, since about 50 percent of our carbon footprint comes from our electric use," says McInally.

While these efforts have helped move the college closer to its neutrality goal, the next big priority is to reduce energy consumption, he adds. A key tactic that should help with that is the college's adoption of a comprehensive maintenance plan that considers numerous priorities such as energy reduction, accessibility, and classroom technology based on a 10-year planning cycle. Between now and 2020, the college has set aside $3.5 million for comprehensive maintenance projects, including energy audits and building-envelope improvements to tighten performance of all major campus infrastructure.

Energy Freedom

For Mount Wachusett Community College, Gardner, Massachusetts, the journey toward energy independence has paired aggressive conservation measures with on-site renewable energy production, beginning with the installation of a biomass heating system in December 2002. In 2009 MWCC installed a 100-kilowatt rooftop photovoltaic system. Most recently, in March 2011, the college activated two 1.65-megawatt wind turbines. By their one-year anniversary these were producing 5 million kilowatt hours annually—more than 100 percent of the electricity demand for MWCC's main campus. All combined, these measures have reduced MWCC's greenhouse gas emissions by 2,900 metric tons, a reduction of more than 90 percent. That more than triples the college's interim target goal of a 25 percent reduction it set for its initial climate action plan progress report, says President Daniel Asquino.

Colleges like Mount Wachusett Community College are not only showing that energy independence is possible, but are modeling what clean and renewable enery security looks like.

Additionally, the college's various energy-efficiency measures have slashed MWCC's consumption by nearly half. The financial translation: savings in excess of $4.5 million in utility expenses over the past decade, notes Asquino. During this time of reduced consumption, the college increased in size and nearly tripled the number of computers on campus.  "We are one institution, but we have already demonstrated the difference that one college can make, and we are raising awareness about the benefits associated with renewable energy as a way to decrease dependence on foreign oil," says Asquino.

Since the start of the Great Recession, concerns about energy security and stability have once again wakened the notion about "Made in America" energy. Colleges like MWCC are not only showing that energy independence is possible, but are modeling what clean and renewable energy security looks like. Asquino believes more Americans are ready for this shift. "During the public hearing phase for the permitting of our wind turbines, there wasn't a single negative comment, and these are the huge 400-foot turbines," says Asquino. "Rather, they have become a source of pride for the community, with many people stopping by out of curiosity to take a closer look."

Offsetting the Gap

In his inaugural address in 2008, Green Mountain College President Paul Fonteyn announced that the Poultney, Vermont, college would be carbon neutral by 2011. While the college had signed the ACUPCC prior to Fonteyn's arrival, he was instrumental in leading the institution's transition from fuel oil to a combined heat and power wood-chip biomass plant. That move alone has essentially cut the institution's carbon footprint in half, says Provost Bill Throop. (For more about Green Mountain's biomass plant, see the June 2011 online Business Officer Plus article, "Green Mountain's Green Energy.")

To close the gap toward achieving its 2011 neutrality goal, the college also purchased renewable energy offsets by investing in the methane-generated "Cow Power" program of its local utility. Important to college leaders and students alike was finding offset options that would support the community or local industry (in this case, Vermont dairies), offer full transparency regarding the real-time validity and effect of the offset (i.e., not occurring at some future point), and provide an opportunity for students and faculty to see the offset in action, says Throop.

The college spent a year developing offsets criteria and interviewing providers. Once the Cow Power program was selected, the college worked with its electric utility to have the farm methane sequestration project third-party certified and the resulting CO2-equivalent offsets registered on the Chicago Climate Exchange and retired. That allowed the college to fulfill its offset standard based on ACUPCC guidelines, explains Throop.

Flashback ... 6 Years Ago

In an April 2006 Business Officer article on institutional commitment to sustainability... "Simply put, energy reflects the single largest environmental impact of a campus--and the biggest potential payback .... To really start maling the transition to energy sustainability, we need active involvement by campus leaders. This should be a campus priority."

WALTER SIMPSON, energy officer, State University of New York at Buffalo

Important to note is that the college paid an additional four cents per kilowatt hour more for the methane-based power. "We didn't take the least-cost option. This was a purposeful decision to support a new source of energy production that is also extremely beneficial for the environment, since it mitigates the release of methane gas into the atmosphere," says Throop. Green Mountain's entrepreneurial-minded partnership with its electric utility doesn't end there, notes Fonteyn. The two have also joined forces to test plug-in hybrid and vehicle-to-grid technologies.

While Green Mountain has already reached the college's carbon neutrality target deadline, leaders aren't coasting on this achievement. "We know we still have
a long way to go, and that we will never, in fact, be done with efforts to reduce emissions and energy consumption," says Fonteyn.

In addition to ongoing building-efficiency measures, the college is working with its biomass providers to ensure that more of the college's wood-chip supply is produced, harvested, and delivered in a sustainable manner. Leaders are likewise exploring the option to develop a solar farm on campus that could generate up to 10 percent of the college's electricity demand to either keep or sell back to the community as a way to draw others into the renewable energy marketplace, Fonteyn says.

More Space, Less Energy

There is no way for a command-and-control approach to sustainability to work at New York University, the largest independent university in the United States, with a community of 50,000 students, faculty, and staff occupying 175 buildings scattered across Manhattan. Within such a highly decentralized environment it can sometimes be a challenge to spread the word about new initiatives, says Jeremy Friedman, NYU manager of sustainability initiatives. The university's Green Grants program, which focuses resources on grassroots-led projects that have wide-scale application and that can generate broad participation, has been particularly successful as an alternative method of getting things done, notes Friedman.

When NYU signed the ACUPCC it established a target deadline of 2040 for reaching climate neutrality, with 2017 as an interim deadline for reducing emissions by 30 percent. "We've already surpassed that marker, achieving a 33 percent reduction in our first five years," says Friedman. That's thanks in large part to a new high-efficiency cogeneration power plant that came on line earlier this year that now heats, cools, and powers half the campus. While some are already proposing to move the final target deadline up—perhaps to 2031in conjunction with NYU's 200th anniversary—those suggestions must be considered in the context of plans under way to increase NYU's overall square footage by 50 percent, from its current 12 million square feet to up to 18 million square feet, he notes.

The timing of the ACUPCC was fortuitous for NYU, Friedman adds. Had the university not already committed to climate neutrality, expectations regarding business-as-usual growth could have been at cross-purposes with efforts to reduce the institution's carbon footprint. "Keeping these two purposes in mind, we can ask the provocative questions going forward about how to reduce emissions in absolute terms even as we are investing in additional space," he says. To align these two priorities, NYU will employ a mix of strategies targeting conservation and efficiency, behavior modification, transitioning from fuel oil to cleaner energy sources, and renewable energy development.

When the Frostburg State University sustainable energy research facility opens, it will operate off the grid via solar, wind, and renewable fuel sources.

Given NYU's urban environment, with very limited space for on-campus solar and wind power projects, it's unlikely the university would be able to directly generate more than 5 or 10 percent of its current electricity demand, notes Friedman. "While the trend is for technologies to become more efficient over time, when we run the models, we don't know of any currently feasible way for us to reach zero emissions completely on our own." While the university isn't purchasing offsets yet, Friedman concedes there will likely come a day when that need will arise. "First we want to do all we can on our own." If NYU does decide to purchase offsets, the criteria for those will include pursuing a local-based offset regime for which the university controls the process for generating and managing credits to ensure that they're meaningful and additional—that is, not resulting from what would have otherwise occurred, says Friedman.

A Truce on Neutrality

Allegheny College's McInally acknowledges that the debate about whether offsets are an appropriate means of reaching neutrality or whether neutrality is even achievable are valid discussion points. "In the end I'm not convinced that it's a useful conversation," he says. The college anticipates that by 2020 it can reduce emissions to somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 metric tons from a peak of 16,000, at which point the college will likely need to purchase offsets. "We may never get to zero on our own, but we have made huge progress, and we don't plan to stop even once we achieve our 2020 goal," says McInally.

From his perspective, the strength of the commitment is the ambitious goal it presents. "College and university presidents who signed on knew it would be a challenge to put their institutions out front. While the initiative leaves a lot of room for institutions to define their own timeline and process, it does not waver on whether to commit to neutrality."

Georges Dyer concedes that a number of institutions have been uncomfortable with the ACUPCC requirement of picking a target date for achieving climate neutrality, noting uncertainty about what the economic, technical, or political landscape might look like in 10 years. "From the start, the intent of the commitment has been to focus on what the science says is necessary with regard to mitigating our impact on the planet versus what may seem feasible today to do," says Dyer, vice president of programs for Second Nature.

In many respects, this is similar to the charge to put a man on the moon, adds Dyer. "The framers of the initiative were focused conceptually on where we need to go, not on exactly how to get there." Based on initial reporting, a good number of ACUPCC institutions are already beginning to shift target dates downward after finding they've been able to reach interim targets more quickly than originally anticipated, notes Dyer.

Survival of the Efficient

Sustainability endeavors have already altered the business model on many campuses, as more have come to realize firsthand that efficiency measures and renewable energy sourcing can provide immediate savings and long-term financial dividends. In recent years, Western Michigan University (WMU), Kalamazoo, has increased its square footage by 19 percent while decreasing overall energy consumption 17 percent. Various measures the university has taken equate to more than $120 million in savings, including conservation efforts ($40 million), transition to on-site energy production ($46 million), and cost avoidance associated with eliminating the need to expand the campus power plant ($30 million). "With those results, it's hard to argue against taking measures to increase efficiency and reduce your emissions impact," says President John M. Dunn.

Green Mountain College's Fonteyn concurs. The transition to a more sustainable campus operation is important not only from a reputational standpoint, but also from a survival reality. "Efficiency is where many institutions are going to find their biggest savings going forward, and those savings are desperately needed to enhance access and affordability for students," he says. For many institutions, sustainability efforts can also bring in outside funds from new sources and are increasingly viewed as a student recruitment and retention plus, not only from the standpoint of showing good environmental stewardship, but also for educational opportunities that are relevant to career prospects, notes Dyer.

Now that the first round of climate action plan progress reports have started rolling in from ACUPCC signatories, the initiative can begin to provide hard evidence of what institutions have discovered firsthand is possible to achieve related to emissions reductions and energy and financial savings, says Dyer.

At the same time, the goals of the ACUPCC encompass neutrality in campus operations as well as the education of students and engagement of the larger community. Higher education can and must play a central role in preparing graduates and developing a workforce equipped with the technical expertise and with the decision-making and policy-making skills to address the challenges we face in rebuilding and sustaining an economy that will ensure a habitable planet.

According to Dyer, "While most institutions have understandably tended to begin from a more tangible operational focus, we are beginning to see more dig in to addressing their research, academic, and outreach functions." Front and center in discussing next steps as a network will be developing strategies to strengthen the academic component of the commitment, he says.

Show Me the Math and Science

The ACUPCC is about reducing emissions and energy consumption, but it's also about transforming the educational experience and connecting the actual operations of institutions to the educational experience, notes Cortese. NYU is currently grappling with how it will comply with the nonoperational aspects of the commitment. "Conceptually this is more challenging and complex to define and measure versus quantitative reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption," notes Friedman.

As a first step, the university sent interested faculty to a curriculum-development leadership retreat offered by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). Using insights gained at this retreat, NYU's academic initiatives working group in the sustainability task force is now launching a curriculum-development workshop for faculty across a wide range of disciplines who wish to integrate sustainability principles and core competencies into existing coursework for students.

At Green Mountain, part of the push in the next five years will be extending accomplishments on the operational front into the academic arena. With the commissioning of the college's biomass plant, math students are now required to take a quantitative environmental analysis course that allows them to review the plant's real-time energy usage and impacts. "Part of the value of the ACUPCC is that it focused our energies on a highly visible goal," says Throop. "We would have built the biomass plant anyway, for purely economic reasons, but I'm not sure we would have integrated it as well as we have into our educational programming had we not signed the commitment."

With significant focus already on the environmental dimensions of sustainability education, the college is now trying to build into its core curriculum the economic concerns surrounding sustainability that cut across every sector, Throop says. "We are seeking to instill entrepreneurial skills across all majors to help students better understand the economic levers associated with climate change."

Ball State leaders see extensive opportunities for applied research and education in connection with its campuswide geothermal system. With the south borehole field still under construction, the university has submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation to create a testing site that would more fully instrument a portion of the field with a valve system, allowing connection or disconnection from the system to test performance under various conditions.

This would provide a long-term research platform for faculty and students in the hard sciences, says Koester. Beginning this summer, the university plans to host what leaders hope will become an annual geothermal conclave for industry leaders and academics from across the country to exchange ideas about geothermal energy harvesting, says Koester.

As more college and university campuses have become showcases for new energy technologies and clean and renewable energy production, students are requesting more hands-on involvement with designing, developing, testing, and monitoring these new systems. One has to ask to what extent students have grown receptive to sustainability-minded solutions as a result of seeing new approaches modeled on campus, notes WMU's Dunn.

With support from a Clean Energy Coalition grant, WMU is now a national leader in electric vehicle charging technology. The university recently added 15 new charging stations for area drivers at its main auditorium for a total of 20 charging stations on campus. A 50-kilowatt grid-tied solar array set as a backdrop to the auditorium charging stations will provide a significant portion of the energy demand they require and will serve as a visual symbol of a clean transportation future, says Dunn.

No matter which comes first—the campus modeling or the student demand—he believes students will continue to spur their institutions to take dramatic action on the sustainability front. "Today's students don't hesitate to consider these changes as normal and necessary," says Dunn. He likens the current generational shift in energy and environmental consciousness to when his children came of age at a time when seat belts had recently become standard. "They never considered wearing seat belts an inconvenience," explains Dunn. "Doing so simply made sense."

Signing the commitment made sense to the students at Frostburg State University, Frostburg, Maryland. They encouraged Jonathan Gibralter on the day of his inauguration as president to sign the ACUPCC and put the university on the course toward neutrality. "Becoming a signatory gave us the opportunity to begin thinking about our efforts in a more focused way—not simply a project here and there, but to really consider how to tie everything together to dramatically reduce our emissions by 2030," says Gibralter.

With a grant from the Department of Energy, Frostburg is building a sustainable energy research facility, the latest development in the university's focus on offering renewable energy educational opportunities and research. FSU already provides a certification program for installation of small-scale photovoltaic and wind systems ideal for individual residences. To date more than 100 people have been certified through this workforce-development program, notes Gibralter. When the research facility opens, it will operate off the grid via solar, wind, and renewable fuel sources. The facility will host postdoctoral candidates and national leaders in renewable energy research and technology development.

Adjacent to this site is the Allegany Business Center, a facility made possible through a partnership between Allegany County and the university, which is fully heated and cooled by a geothermal system that makes use of a decommissioned deep coal mine. Gibralter predicts that over the course of the next five years, higher education institution partnerships with government and industry will begin to flourish as Americans come to more fully understand the benefits of sustainable living and demand solutions from business and government similar to what they see taking place on their local college campuses.

According to Friedman, at around the same time NYU signed on to the ACUPCC, representatives from Mayor Bloomberg's office approached higher education institutions in New York City to see how they might lead by example in helping the city attain its goal of a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. "City officials have shown strong interest in the projects we are doing to see how they might replicate them on a broader scale," notes Friedman. In one example, NYU's bike-share program is being lauded as a proof of concept that this kind of program can work citywide.

The new open-door conversation with the city is one example of how higher education solutions can begin to play out in very tangible ways across the country, says Friedman. From his perspective, these first years of the commitment have been a positive and necessary phase for institutions to set long-range goals, educate stakeholders, and set priorities for how to get there. "More broadly, the ACUPCC is much more than the sum of what individual institutions are accomplishing year over year, but what we can do together to build a critical mass to show real leadership to the rest of the nation," insists Friedman.

The Synergizer Effect

Somewhat surprising to Second Nature's Dyer has been the initial growth of the ACUPCC network, given what the commitment represents. "The fact that so many institutions have followed through with a fully voluntary initiative is in itself compelling." While much more work remains at the campus level, it is time to look beyond individual campus boundaries to leverage the collective power of the network, says Dyer. With membership remaining largely stable at about 675 institutions, one goal of the ACUPCC is to expand to 1,000 institutions actively participating in the commitment by 2017, providing exposure to two thirds of the total U.S. higher education student population, notes Dyer.


Reduction in emissions in first five years, ahead of schedule for 30 percent reduction by 2017

New York University

In many ways the network has followed an expected course, in which early adopters have provided the initial vetting of process questions related to complying with the commitment, notes Dyer. Two years ago ACUPCC leadership decided to focus on supporting network members to help them be successful in their efforts rather than continuing to engage in extensive outreach. "We realized that for many leaders, it wasn't a lack of interest that kept them from signing on, but rather, that they didn't feel ready to make the commitment on behalf of their institutions," explains Dyer. "We believe more may now be ready, given the proven success and progress of early signatories."

Koester believes it's good to reflect on all that has happened in a relatively short time frame that is directly traceable to ACUPCC. He also applauds the many parallel developments serving as anchor points, including AASHE's weekly reporting of institution accomplishments and its leadership in developing the STARS rating tool; development of other reporting and assessment tools, including LEED and the Global Reporting Initiative; and the emergence of other industry groups, such as the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium.

"Colleges and universities certainly provide unique opportunities for leadership in sustainability, given the large number of buildings and land area under their singular administration," says Koester. "Our next steps must involve getting the message out in a coherent and organized way that sustainability is not some kind of exotic approach, but a practical and necessary move we all can and must make in fostering a green economy and educating students to be citizens of a very different world."

For McInally, a key benefit of the ACUPCC has been the exchange of ideas and expertise and the opportunity for institutions to be part of something really big. Colleges and universities historically have assumed a level of leadership within the country on key economic and moral issues, notes McInally. "And yet, I haven't seen any movement this powerful before, where we are collectively saying this is what the future will look like." This is not simply about employing green technology and taking advantage of economic benefits, notes McInally. "It's about producing a generation of students who are well informed and prepared to enter a world and a workplace where these issues will increasingly matter for their success and for their survival."

Climate as the Common Ground

A commitment to climate neutrality and sustainability fits squarely into the educational, research, and public service missions of higher education, which has the influence, critical mass, skills, and economic purchasing power needed to lead this effort and model solutions for other sectors and for society at large, says Cortese. In addition to creating a learning community to support across-the-board transformative change within the sector, the commitment has already generated the capacity to leverage public and private monies in a way that is sending a strong market signal.


Campus electricity needs met with wind power purchased through renewable energy credits

Allegheny College, Pennsylvania

For instance, higher education institutions are now the third-largest purchaser of renewable energy credits in the country, notes Cortese, "That so many colleges and universities are moving off coal and other fossil fuels provides a very visible and public signal to the private sector."

Even if climate neutrality is not ultimately reached, pursuing that goal greatly enhances the probability that higher education institutions will make the cultural, operational, and educational changes necessary to create a healthy, just, economically sound, and sustainable society, says Cortese. In part, the commitment's strong focus on climate neutrality and on reducing emissions provides a tangible, measurable goal that creates a lever to simultaneously address the broad social and educational components of sustainability, adds Cortese.

"Tackling questions of how energy is sourced and its ecological impact naturally raises the associated and complex questions about the role of higher education in addressing societal challenges and in preparing future leaders for the choices they must make to maintain a thriving, civil society," Cortese says.

Bottom line, society looks to higher education to solve current problems, anticipate future challenges, develop innovative solutions, and model the action and behavior that society must take to continue to evolve in a positive direction, says Cortese.

"The current way of meeting human needs presents the greatest intergenerational equity challenge in modern history. If we simply continue business as usual, today's students and their children will experience the worst effects of climate disruption and other unsustainable activity that will result in a world with greatly diminished prospects for a good quality of life, peace, and security," argues Cortese. "By stepping up to achieve what many consider an unattainable goal, college and university leaders are themselves providing a model for students to pursue what is scientifically and morally necessary to help the rest of world."

KARLA HIGNITE, Universal City, Texas, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

The Next Five Years for the ACUPCC

The American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) provides a framework for higher education institutions to implement comprehensive plans in pursuit of climate neutrality. As part of the commitment, ACUPCC signatories agree to complete a baseline greenhouse gas inventory; set a target date and interim milestones for becoming climate neutral; take immediate steps to reduce emissions from their operations; integrate sustainability into the curriculum and educational experience for students; and make their inventory, action plan, and progress reports publicly available (see for details).

As of March 2012-five years after the 12 college and university president founding signatories of the ACUPCC invited nearly 400 of their peers to join the initiative-675 higher education institutions have signed on. Collectively these institutions enroll nearly 6 million students and represent all 50 states and every type of public and independent degree-granting institution, including: associates (30 percent), baccalaureate (23 percent), masters' (24 percent), doctorate (19 percent), and special-focus institutions (4 percent) such as medical schools, seminaries, and stand-alone law or business schools. In total, 87 historically black, tribal colleges and universities, and Hispanic-serving institutions have signed the ACUPCC.

While reporting data occurs on a rolling basis, a recent snapshot of ACUPCC signatory progress reports the following:

  • Nearly 400 institutions have completed more than one greenhouse gas inventory, which will begin to allow tracking of trends in emissions rates over time.
  • More than 450 institutions have completed a climate action plan.
  • Among those institutions setting target dates for climate neutrality, 306 plan to attain this goal by 2050 or before; 93 have set a target date of 2030; and 40 institutions have pledged to achieve neutrality within 10 years.
  • In implementing their climate action plans, 75 signatories report having secured a total of $167,808,551 in funding from outside sources for implementation of various projects.
  • Sixty-seven percent of reporting signatories confirm that their climate action plan has saved their institution money, with the low end of the ranges reported totalling more than $100 million.
  • The combined renewable energy credits purchased by 156 ACUPCC signatories means that this group represents the third-largest purchaser of RECs in the United States, according to Environmental Protection Agency statistics.

Where to From Here?

The ACUPCC network aims to continue and amplify its impact by its 10-year anniversary in 2017 by:

  • Engage more than 1,000 institutions to actively participate in the network that collectively enrolls two thirds of the total U.S. higher education student population.
  • Achieve emissions reductions of at least 25 percent across the sector on the way to climate neutrality.
  • Support the emergence of robust college and university climate and sustainability commitments in 25 other countries. (To date, international initiatives modeled after the ACUPCC have launched in Scotland and Peru, and similar initiatives are being explored in Taiwan, Australia, and Hungary.)

The network also intends to show substantive education for sustainability strategies at institutions across the country and ensure that the ACUPCC is a part of the institutional culture at every signatory institution. In addition to seeking value as a respected network within the higher education sector, the ACUPCC will turn greater attention to increasing awareness about the initiative among the general public as a means to influence action by other societal sectors on climate and sustainability.

For more about the ACUPCC, go to

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