The amount of energy consumed in the operation of higher-education institutions in the United States is down 8 percent and related emissions per square foot are down 14 percent from a 2007 baseline, according to a report released today by Sightlines and the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Sustainability Institute.

“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,“ Nancy Targett, UNH’s provost, said. “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, “State of Sustainability in Higher Education 2016,” is the second annual study produced in collaboration by the two organizations. Sightlines is a provider of facilities intelligence and analysis for higher-education institutions. The UNH Sustainability Institute integrates diverse perspectives, disciplines, and knowledge to address sustainability challenges.

The study was based primarily on data from the 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 United States, and have a collective 1.5 billion gross square feet (GSF) of facilities assets. The database is comprised of 59 percent public institutions and 41 percent private institutions.

Key findings from the study included:

  • Campus carbon footprints may be under-reported by more than 30 percent. 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 report few if any emissions associated with purchased goods, construction, capital reinvestment, or demolition. Data in the study suggests 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 life cycle. 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 life cycle. For instance, 80 percent 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 sectorwide, but the report notes 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 in 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,” Mark Schiff, president of Sightlines, said. “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 life cycle, from construction to operation to capital reinvestment to demolition.”

Representatives from Sightlines and UNH will host a free webinar on Feb. 21 at 1 p.m. ET. This webinar will give attendees the opportunity to hear from experts as they explore these issues in greater detail, provide an in-depth analysis of the trends that comprise the report, and answer audience questions. To register for the webinar, click here.