The planet is warming. Between 2010 and 2019, annual global greenhouse emissions were at their highest levels in human history, according to an April 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. “Without immediate and deep reductions across all sectors,” the IPCC declared, “limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is beyond reach.”
That number is important. Limiting rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees could halve the increase in sea levels that will occur by 2100. Yet as United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned, humanity is on track to more than double the 1.5-degree Celsius limit.
As the problem becomes more dire, colleges and universities are fighting back by conducting research, emphasizing sustainability, and setting carbon-reduction goals. In 2021, at a forum in Glasgow, Scotland, 1,050 higher ed institutions from sixty-eight countries committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. Since 2007, more than 800 institutions have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a pledge to achieve carbon neutrality as soon as possible.
Students are often demanding such measures, which can influence their academic choices. At Colorado State University, one out of every four students asks about sustainability during the admissions process. For many students, climate change is not a chic cause. It’s an existential threat, as Guterres noted in response to the IPCC report. Without change, he predicts “unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, and the extinction of a million species of plants and animals.”
The need for action is urgent. Here are some ways that higher ed institutions are responding.
1,000 students • Middlebury, Vermont
In 2006, when Middlebury College’s board of trustees approved a ten-year goal to become carbon neutral, the decision seemed audacious, exciting, and a bit unsettling. But bold measures, the college has shown, can produce successful results.
“I think setting a goal that’s uncomfortable is important,” says Jack Byrne, Middlebury’s director of sustainability integration.
The college took numerous steps to become carbon neutral, building a $12 million biomass plant on its main campus. The plant uses wood chips rather than fuel oil to produce electricity for the campus. Middlebury also made a roughly $2 million investment in everything from more-efficient lighting to improved heating and ventilation motors to three solar projects (which account for about 8 percent of the college’s electricity). A partnership with Efficiency Vermont, a conservation utility, has led to other energy-efficiency projects that have trimmed about $600,000 from the college’s utility bills. In 2014, the college set aside 2,100 acres of forest land on its Bread Loaf campus for conservation, allowing it to both buy and sell carbon offset credits.
The quest for carbon neutrality began with a 2001 strategic planning report, which recommended the goal as one of eight environmental priorities. A student intern worked with Clean Air-Cool Planet, a New Hampshire–based nonprofit, to conduct Middlebury’s first emissions inventory, evaluating everything from the college’s vehicle fleet to its electricity purchases and staff travel. By 2002, the college was considering a proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. A group of students, however, wanted faster action, and in 2007, they proposed carbon neutrality by 2016, a measure the board later adopted.
A critical step came in 2006, when the board approved plans for the biomass plant. The college issued a bond to raise the $12 million, and the plant began full operation in 2009. Middlebury soon reduced its fuel oil consumption from roughly two million gallons to six hundred thousand gallons, saving the college $1 million to $2 million annually. The savings even helped pay back the college’s construction loans. But there were challenges. A fire damaged the plant shortly after its launch, and several years later, the manufacturer of the system hardware—including the combustion, conveyor belt, and pollution control systems—went out of business.
“We went through a steep learning curve,” Byrne says. “We basically were left to modify the system, and we have patents for things that we created to make it work better.” (The plant burns wood chips from trees and forests within a roughly seventy-mile radius from campus. Because the state’s forests have an annual net growth, burning wood does not affect the college’s carbon status.)
The drive to carbon neutrality included other stumbles. In 2006, the college partnered with Lincoln Renewable Gas, which had formed a partnership with Goodrich Farm, a local dairy farm, to produce gas as fuel for the college, but the project didn’t launch in time for the 2016 goal (Massachusetts-based Vanguard Renewables bought the project and now turns food waste and manure into fuel in a partnership with Middlebury, Goodrich, and Vermont Gas). Middlebury had entered another partnership to grow willow shrubs as a fuel source for the biomass plant, but the shrubs proved ineffective.
The successes, however, far outweigh the setbacks. Today, the biomass facility produces 15 to 20 percent of the campus’s electricity (the rest comes from solar and Green Mountain Power, an electric utility in Vermont). Up next: The school’s Energy2028 plan aims for 100 percent divestment from fossil fuels by 2034, a 25 percent reduction in energy consumption, and 100 percent renewable energy by 2028. Middlebury may have achieved carbon neutrality six years ago, but the drive to improve never ends.
“I feel much more concern today about the climate than I did fifteen years ago—it feels much closer to becoming catastrophic,” Byrne says. “That means we have to approach this in a much more urgent way.”
Understanding Carbon Neutrality
“The love you take is equal to the love you make,” the Beatles once sang, and the same is true with carbon neutrality. To be carbon neutral, the greenhouse gases you emit need to be at least equally offset by measures to reduce emissions, such as land preservation and use of electric vehicles. The goal: to achieve net-zero emissions.
Big Schools, Tough Goal
The University of Notre Dame. Vanderbilt University. The University of Maryland. Each of these universities has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050. Why such a long-term goal? Achieving carbon neutrality can be more challenging for bigger institutions than for smaller ones. One reason: “Larger technical universities have roughly four times the carbon emissions per student” compared to smaller, undergraduate institutions, a 2016 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found.
1,480 students • Reading, Pennsylvania
Got an idea to make your campus greener? Share it. Someone might actually listen.
That’s what happened at Albright College. In late 2019, Kera Wierzbicki, Albright’s environmental health and safety officer, received a proposal from a student and a biology professor. Their idea: to add charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs). Wierzbicki, who also chairs the college’s Committee for Sustainability and Stewardship, was intrigued, so she did some research and presented the idea to the committee. The suggestion led to a major initiative: In December 2021, the college announced it would install sixteen stations capable of charging thirty-two vehicles—the first charging stations in Reading—and begin transitioning its twenty-nine-vehicle fleet (including cars, trucks, and buses) from gas to electric.
EVs could be critical in the fight against climate change. Transportation accounts for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, making it the nation’s highest source of emissions, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The April IPCC report noted that EVs “have large potential to reduce land-based transport greenhouse gas emissions,” and “their adoption is accelerating”—though more infrastructure investments are needed to support their use.
Albright has started by converting five of its vehicles to electric. Even that small step benefits the climate. The average gas-powered passenger vehicle emits about 404 grams of carbon dioxide and 0.05 grams of nitrogen oxides per mile, according to EPA information. Switching five of Albright’s vehicles to electric reduces the college’s annual carbon dioxide output by 66,800 pounds and its nitrogen oxides by 8.5 pounds, notes Carey Manzolillo, Albright’s director of communications.
The downside, Manzolillo says, is cost: “Although there are some great programs in place, such as Pennsylvania’s Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant Program, converting will not be inexpensive.” But EVs also offer long-term financial benefits. Driving an EV can result in $14,500 in savings in fuel costs for motorists over a fifteen-year period, according to a 2020 analysis by the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory. Electric motors also require less maintenance—scheduled maintenance for EVs costs about 40 percent less than for gas-powered cars, the Argonne National Laboratory reports.
Albright’s conversion is also providing educational opportunities. Potential student projects include studies on EV charging time and usage, car battery life, excess energy storage devices, solar energy, and the reduction of greenhouse gases.
“As an academic institution, conserving energy and developing green initiatives are not only critical to our operations but to the overall educational experience of our students,” Albright President Jacquelyn S. Fetrow said in a recent statement announcing a partnership with Evolution Energy Partners, an energy management, engineering, and consulting firm, to improve the college’s conservation measures. “Showing our students how critical environmentally sustainable strategies are and engaging them in that process is an important part of the academic journey.”
The Future Is Electric
Institutions that are saying goodbye to fossil-fuel vehicles and encouraging EV use include:
40 percent of Columbia’s fleet of fifty-five vehicles is hybrid or electric.
University At Buffalo
By 2025, all new vehicle purchases will be electric.
University of Southern California
The university has more than two hundred charging ports on its two campuses, including ninety-nine in one parking lot.
White Mountains Community College
A new Electric Vehicle Technician certificate is now part of the college’s automotive technology program.
Arizona State University
135,700 students • Tempe, Arizona
Greg Asner has a good gig. As director of the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science at Arizona State University (ASU), he spends much of his time in Hawaii, studying the world’s oceans. A big part of his job is overseeing the Allen Coral Atlas (allencoralatlas.org), a map of the world’s tropical shallow coral reefs.
“The atlas is like what you picture an atlas to be—like a Rand McNally atlas—but it’s much more than that,” Asner says. “It includes the first high-resolution map of shallow coral reefs worldwide to fifteen-meter water depths.” The atlas also has an innovative monitoring system. “ASU led that from the get-go,” he says, “and that’s turned into the main purpose of the atlas. It tells us not only where the reefs are, but are they under stress from thermal events associated with climate change, and where are those events occurring, and how bad is it?”
The atlas has led to new insights on problems such as reef bleaching. Bleaching occurs when corals are stressed by changes in temperature, light, nutrients, and other conditions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That causes them to “expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues,” which turns them white, NOAA states. But the news is not as dire as it often appears in the media, Asner says. “Some reefs are bleaching, but some aren’t,” he says.
Climate change is only about one-third of the problem that’s damaging reefs, the center’s research has shown. High-nutrient, high-sediment water streaming from land into the oceans is equally problematic. Asner noticed this during a recent trip to the Florida Keys. “Their water quality is really in trouble,” he says. “I haven’t seen that much brown water and green water anywhere I’ve worked. And so, water quality as it comes off of land into the reef system is at least one-third of what’s killing reefs worldwide. Here in Hawaii, same story. Yet nobody’s monitoring it at large scales.”
The other reef-damaging issue is persistent overfishing. “Too many fishers on those reefs are causing reefs to degrade faster than we thought,” he says. “Removing the fish allows for algal cover to explode and smother the coral.”
The atlas is providing vital information to address these problems. The project began in 2017, when Paul Allen, the late Microsoft cofounder, convened a small group of researchers, including Asner, to discuss coral reef science, management, and conservation. The team completed the mapping in September 2021. Today, the atlas—the result of a multi-organization partnership that includes Vulcan Inc., Planet Labs Inc., the University of Queensland, and the National Geographic Society—has thousands of users worldwide.
“The smallest [nongovernmental organization] can grab for free the data on our platform and do analytics and understand how a reef is changing,” Asner says. Local jurisdictions can also use the information to make decisions that will affect humanity’s future prosperity: More than a billion people rely on reefs for everything from their dinner to their economic livelihood, research shows. Areas with degraded reefs are also more affected by hurricanes and storm surges.
“Somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of a coral reef,” Asner says. “Those regions are prone to coastal zone changes. Even the insurance companies are coming to us for information on how to insure properties along coastline. Coral reefs provide a critical barrier and a critical habitat for a large number of people.”
The Carbon-Capture Tree
OK, it’s not really a tree, though that’s what they call it at ASU’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions. Based on the research of the center’s director, engineer Klaus Lackner, the thirty-three-foot-high “MechanicalTree,” which is being installed on ASU’s Tempe campus, contains disks five feet in diameter that collect carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This first tree is expected to remove two hundred pounds of carbon a day, which is waaay better than a real tree: In a year, a mature tree absorbs about forty-eight pounds of carbon.
New Studies, New Fears
- Higher ed research is helping illuminate the effects of climate change on our planet.
- Without major advances in agricultural practices, climate change could make the US Corn Belt unsuitable for corn crops by 2100, Emory University found.
- By 2060, up to 87 percent of our oceans may see increases in temperature, higher levels of acidity, and declining oxygen, found Oregon State University.
- As animals shift habitats due to climate change, our exposure to new viruses could increase and lead to the next pandemic, found Georgetown University Medical Center.
- Invest in Kleenex: Climate change will likely make allergy seasons longer and more intense, the University of Michigan found.
University of Iowa
31,200 students • Iowa City, Iowa
Unless you’re a farmer or an agriculture major, you’ve probably never heard of an oat hull. But in 2003, when the University of Iowa (UI) launched a biomass program to reduce its use of fossil fuels, oat hulls—in this case, a byproduct of the cereal-making process at a Quaker Oats facility in Cedar Rapids—became a key resource in making UI a green energy powerhouse.
The biomass program helped UI meet seven ambitious sustainability goals set in 2008, including achieving net-negative energy growth and 40 percent renewable energy consumption by the end of 2020. UI has not only met the goals—along with commitments to decrease waste and reduce the carbon impact of transportation—but it’s also slashed its use of coal by 60 percent. In February 2022, the EPA ranked UI number three on its list of the nation’s biggest green power users among colleges and universities (the top two are the University of California and Arizona State University). UI uses more than 251 million kilowatts of green power annually, which accounts for 73 percent of its electricity needs on the 1,900-acre campus.
In addition to burning oat hulls, the university has since added miscanthus grass to its biomass mix. Grown on about 1,100 acres that UI leases from farmers, the grass is mixed into an “energy pellet” that includes industrial byproducts that would otherwise go to a landfill. Additional innovations include modifying coal boilers into biomass boilers rather than replacing them.
“We’ve made incredible progress in trying to take boilers that were designed for one fuel and switching them over to another,” says Ben Fish, director of UI Utility Operations. “That reduces our capital spending on new boilers so we can use that for other things.”
UI also buys electricity from MidAmerican Energy, a company that relies heavily on wind power (solar also accounts for a small percentage of UI’s energy production).
One thing many people don’t realize, Fish says, is the role of steam in heating and cooling campus buildings.
“I get the question all the time, ‘Why can’t we just switch everything over to wind and solar?’” Fish says. “And the truth is that our campus, and almost all of the other campuses like ours, are very heavy users of steam. So, when I talk total energy, about 25 percent of our energy comes from electricity and the other 75 percent, from steam.” About half of that steam is generated by the biomass facility, and the other half, natural gas, though UI is working to eliminate natural gas use.
Energy conservation is also part of UI’s focus. The university has tackled what Fish calls “low-hanging fruit” projects, such as lighting retrofits, and building automation has helped reduce heating and air conditioning costs. Fish is particularly excited about a fifty-year partnership that launched in 2020 with two companies—ENGIE North America and Meridiam—to develop clean and more efficient energy solutions. ENGIE now manages UI’s utility system, and the two companies will help the university to meet its next major goal of becoming coal-free by 2025. “We’re on track for that,” Fish says, “and I hope it happens sooner.”
Here Comes the Sun
In December 2021, the University of Southern California (USC) pledged to become carbon neutral by 2025, and part of the plan is to use solar energy. In 2020, USC installed 1,500 solar panels on the Galen Center, the university’s sports arena (USC previously installed panels on an apartment building and the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island). The Galen Center panels produce 915,000 kilowatt-hours of carbon-free energy in one year, enough to power eighty-eight houses for twelve months, according to USC.
Colorado State University
33,000 students • Fort Collins, Colorado
Remember the famous cafeteria scene in Animal House when slovenly Bluto piles a mountain of food on his tray? That would never happen at Colorado State University (CSU). Its dining centers have been trayless since 2008 (trays spur people to grab more food than they’ll eat and also require water to clean them). And forget about food fights: 93 percent of CSU’s food waste is diverted to an on-campus compost program, and student volunteers collect food waste from football and basketball games. “They’re literally jumping in and sorting waste and making sure that the material that’s compostable gets composted,” says Tonie Miyamoto, director of communications and sustainability for the Division of Student Affairs.
Students even advocated for compostable serving ware: many containers, utensils, and cups are compostable in CSU dining centers.
So where does all the food waste and compostable cutlery go? Three dining centers have pulpers that grind up waste and pump it to a centrifuge. Most of that waste is taken to a large, automated composting vessel known as Oscar, which diverts about three hundred thousand pounds of food waste annually from the local landfill (Oscar also takes materials such as straw and horse manure from CSU’s Equine Center, providing carbon for the process). The finished product becomes soil conditioner for campus landscaping; CSU also hosts an annual compost giveaway day in April.
For agricultural student interns, the composting process serves as a living lab. Student interns operate the composter and learn how the system works by adjusting compost recipes, taking temperatures, and testing the soil, while also managing mechanical challenges. “It’s a really cool partnership with our Soil and Crop Sciences Department,” Miyamoto says. “They can assess at the end of their internship if the recipe should be adjusted or what they learned.”
Some leftover food goes not to Oscar but to hungry students through food recovery programs. CSU maintains a text list of more than a thousand people in the campus community. At the end of catered events, subscribers receive a text if there’s leftover food. “It might say, ‘Hey, we’ve got leftover salad and burritos—bring your own container,’ ” Miyamoto says. The list is intended for food-insecure students, but anyone at CSU can sign up.
“It makes food available for students who need it, and I think it removes the stigma that you have to qualify in order to receive it,” she says. In January, CSU opened an on-campus food pantry through a partnership with a local food bank.
Housing and Dining Services also works with the campus Horticulture Center, which grows fresh produce. Since 2017, roughly six thousand pounds of produce—from lettuce to tomatoes to strawberries—have been served in the dining centers. In 2018, the university obtained a Bee Campus USA certification (among the requirements: creating a pollinator habitat by providing native plants and nesting sites). And CSU doesn’t limit sustainability efforts to food. The university has pledged to use 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030. Eighty percent of students bring a bike with them to campus, and students even run their own on-campus bike repair shop as a living lab. The university has one thousand on-campus research projects related to sustainability, and all eight of its colleges offer at least one sustainability major or minor.
“It doesn’t matter if a student’s taking a class or looking for an engagement opportunity, there will be a sustainability option,” Miyamoto says. “There’s a deep commitment here. It’s the students, it’s the faculty, it’s the staff, it’s our administration. We have it at each level.”
You Need This Badge to Graduate
Plenty of institutions offer degree programs on sustainability, but at the University of California, Merced, students must earn a sustainability badge to graduate. The badge is one of eight “Intellectual Experience Badges,” which include topics such as global awareness and ethics. Courses that qualify for the sustainability badge include biology, bioethics, and, of course, environmental sciences.
Planet-Friendly Meal Plans
These colleges and universities are reducing waste and providing fresh food options on campus and beyond.
Dining hall waste is composted and used on the campus’s pesticide-free landscape. Campus gardens grow organic fruits, veggies, and herbs.
Students grow crops, from broccoli to potatoes, for communities in need through a partnership with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
The campus has zero vending machines and doesn’t use disposable dishes or utensils. Students grow 30 percent of food served on campus.
University of California, Berkeley
Students run a food collective emphasizing fresh local sustainable foods for fellow students and the community.
University of Connecticut
UConn Dining partners with a food recovery network to deliver uneaten food to a local soup kitchen. Food waste is also converted into bio-gas and compost.