College campuses' climate lessons for companies

Two Steps Forward

College campuses' climate lessons for companies

For the past five years, a quiet efficiency revolution has been taking place on more than 600 college campuses. It offers potential lessons for companies on how a sector can simultaneously compete and collaborate to achieve ever higher levels of environmental success.

A group called the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which began in 2007 with a dozen schools, now boasts 675 institutions representing a third of the entire U.S. college and university student population. Each has signed a commitment to take specific steps “in pursuit of climate neutrality.” Those actions include completing a comprehensive inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, developing an institutional action plan for becoming climate neutral and choosing other tangible actions from a menu, from sustainable purchasing to waste minimization.

On the occasion of ACUPCC’s fifth anniversary, and the Leadership Summit it held recently in Washington, D.C., I spoke with the group’s organizer, Anthony Cortese, whose day job is president of Second Nature, a 20-year-old nonprofit he co-founded (with former U.S. Senator John Kerry and his wife, philanthropist Teresa Heinz) to bring sustainability to higher education.

Cortese was anxious to cite the litany of ACUPCC’s impressive achievements — reduced emissions, increased renewable energy, saved money, business model innovations, and all the rest. I’ll spare you the list, except to say that as a group, the member colleges and universities have reduced gross greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent, and more than 30 percent of the signatories have set a target climate neutrality date within 20 years. (If you’re interested in additional details, you can read about them in the group’s just-published five-year report.)

I was more interested in the “how” and “why” of these accomplishments: What motivated these hundreds of college and university presidents? How are they working together and leveraging one another's efforts?

“When we went to the presidents, we pitched this from the perspective that this is really about their core educational mission,” Cortese explained. “’Why wouldn’t you make sure that your graduates could help create a healthy, just and sustainable society, and why wouldn’t you demonstrate that on your own campuses?’ Many of the presidents who signed the commitment initially told us that the primary reason they did it is because of the students — not because of student pressure, but because they felt that the worst impact of an unsustainable society would occur on their students and their students’ children. They felt their primary purpose is to educate students so that they could have a decent quality of life.”

Given the group’s climate-neutral focus, it’s not surprising that the bulk of the activities the schools engage in relate to energy efficiency and renewable energy. But it’s not just light bulbs and HVAC tuning. “There has been an explosion of programs to make the campuses more bicycle and pedestrian friendly, to promote more public use of public transportation, and locally and organically grown food, and a lot more local purchasing,” says Cortese.

One of the ways the initiatives succeed, he says, especially given the dour economy and many colleges’ budget challenges, is through creative financing. “A number of schools have developed internal revolving-loan funds that have much better returns on investment than anything you could get in the stock market, even when the stock market was really up and before the big downturn."

But many schools don’t need such funds, given the attractive economics of efficiency and renewables. Says Cortese: “The University of Southern Mississippi is saying that over the next 30 years, they’re going to save $270 million in energy costs because of a deeply comprehensive program for energy efficiency and conservation. Butte College in California is completely on solar and off the grid. It’s the first carbon-positive institution, and their numbers indicate that they’ll be saving between $50 million and $75 million over the next 20 years.”

There are other, less-tangible benefits. “Some business offices tell us that they like the climate commitment because it can enforce some discipline on the campuses, where every department and every school wants a new building. They want more space, but they can utilize this just by saying, ‘Well, do we really need it? Can we find more effective use of our space and more effective use of our time? Can we centralize some functions that will result in the reduction in both costs and resource consumption?’”

It might be tempting to write this off as an initiative unique to higher education. As someone recently pointed out, many colleges and universities operate as autocratic fiefdoms, meaning it’s easier to get everyone moving in the same direction.

But I don’t think what ACUPCC is doing can be dismissed that easily. In fact, there are several things going on here that are relevant to the business sector, in particular to trade associations, chambers of commerce, and other conglomerations of companies. Here are four:

  1. Consistency, but flexibility. In ACUPCC’s scheme, all schools make the same core commitments, but each has some ability for craft the program to their needs — for example, to create their own climate neutrality date and emissions target based on what they think they can do, and on their individual circumstances, such as local climate, utility prices, and age of buildings.
     
  2. Mandatory reporting. All of the 600+ institutions are required to publish a report, and the reports are available centrally from ACUPCC’s website. This engenders accountability, of course, but also momentum: Each of the schools can see the progress the others are making.
     
  3. Peer-to-peer learning. Given that the various colleges and universities are more alike than different, there’s a lot they can learn from one another. One of the great resources is institutional knowledge. ACUPCC created a peer-to-peer program of recently retired presidents of colleges and universities that serve as the peer mentors to the current presidents that have signed the commitment. Next year, ACUPCC plans to do the same thing with business officers and chief academic officers. Says Cortese: “We think that the peer-to-peer learning is one of the most effective and the fastest way to get this kind of social innovation occurring.”
     
  4. Greening the curriculum. The ACUPCC program could have stopped at the greening of the academic institutions’ operations, but it didn’t. It also has an effort to work with faculty from different disciplines to help them understand the social, economic, and ecological challenges around sustainability, and to modify their existing courses or develop new ones. More than 100 colleges and universities are involved in such efforts, says Cortese. Over the next five years, he says, the group will build a network “of all the provosts and the deans of the colleges and universities across the country so that they can understand how different schools who have tried to do this, and how they can make modifications in tenure and promotions and create incentives in the different disciplines to incorporate this kind of knowledge.”

It doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to see this working in business, up to and including greening the “curriculum” that is a part of most training and human resources departments. The combination of uniform goals, transparency, resource sharing, and organization-wide engagement strikes me as a recipe for success for sustainability initiatives within any sector or region. Among other things, it takes these efforts beyond one-off exercises and leverages their potential across multiple organizations. That's the way sustainability scales.

It’s hard to argue with ACUPCC’s success. As Cortese boasts, “We have a 94 percent retention rate for a voluntary effort that requires you to actually do something and report publicly on your progress. And emissions are going down, education is going up and money is being saved.”

And the bar continues to rise. At its recent summit, ACUPCC announced a new set of five-year goals, which calls for growing the number of participating schools to 1,000, representing 70 percent of all U.S. students, and to “get at least another 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions across the whole network,” as Cortese put it.

It’s a combination of ambition and common cause that offers a teachable moment for us all.

Image of Tree of knowledge growing out of book by Elena Schweitzer via Shutterstock.