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Universities have a lot to learn about supply-chain and financed emissions

When it comes to Scope 3 emissions, many schools don't make the grade.

Chart showing 3 scopes of greenhouse gas emissions, superimposed with green graduation cap

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[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

If you are reading this, you likely are already interested and engaged in the sustainability field. But do you know how your alma mater is doing in its sustainability efforts? If you work at or attend a university, are you aware of its overall sustainability performance? Are you engaged, helping to assess their sustainability impacts? What criteria would you use to assess and rate or rank universities on their sustainability performance?

We’ve discovered that many in our field are unaware of the credible, sophisticated work of the Association Advancing Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), launched in 2006. Since then, according to the STARS database, "1,119 institutions have registered to use the STARS Reporting Tool, of which 579 have earned a STARS rating."

So, first things first: Review your school’s STARS report. Take in all the categories covered by STARS and the performance indicators against which reporting schools benchmark, then read the rest of this article.

The Scope 3 challenge

Every organization, including universities, faces the challenges of measuring and addressing its Scope 3 emissions. For organizations that purchase and use an immense variety and volume of products and services, including universities, Scope 3 emissions — arising in the global supply chains that furnish those products and services — are likely to dwarf those from direct operations and energy usage. Plus, the inclusion of Scope 3 in guidance from the U.S. government, the European Commission and the International Sustainability Standards Board has most organizations, universities included, scrambling to figure out how to get a better handle on the emissions in their value chain.

Every organization, including universities, faces the challenges of measuring and addressing its Scope 3 emissions.

As you will see from the STARS database, a good number of universities in the United States and abroad are already reporting some of their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or have pledged to do so. For example, the University of Virginia and Colorado State University are committed to reporting their GHG emissions through the Department of Energy’s Better Climate Challenge.

Like the rest of the world, however, a material piece of their carbon emissions is missing from their calculations: Scope 3. Studies from the World Economic Forum and World Resources Institute suggest that Scope 3 for a corporation can account for 70 to 80 percent of its overall GHG emissions. This is a significant and likely material piece of the overall GHG footprint puzzle.

So, what about a university’s footprint?

Yale University’s 2022 Scope 3 analysis indicates that 57 percent of its GHG emissions come from Scope 3. The report also points out the limitations of its calculations. These indirect emissions are associated with the university’s enormous spending power and are largely not disclosed or accounted for.

Unfortunately, students and other stakeholders don’t always see the full picture of their school’s carbon profile, nor are they fully aware of what is encompassed in Scope 3. Meghan Fay Zahniser, executive director of AASHE, said that although the STARS program has done a fantastic job at engaging with universities on their sustainability performance, "like all organizations, colleges and universities still have a lot of work to do on Scope 3." Moreover, she said, "if we can help higher ed get a better handle on Scope 3, it becomes a model of excellence for other sectors, from corporate and medical campuses to cities and beyond."

Scope 3 and sustainable purchasing

Sustainable purchasing is one way to be accountable and reduce the emissions associated with Scope 3. However, pursuing more environmentally friendly procurement practices is no small task.

The Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council (SPLC), founded in 2013, works to convene buyers, suppliers, public interest advocates, companies, universities and other large organizations to develop programs that simplify and standardize sustainable purchasing efforts. Among its 180 members are 19 universities and community colleges, including MIT, Harvard, the University of California system, Princeton, Arizona State University and Penn State University.

According to Sarah O’Brien, CEO of SPLC, "Purchasers can use emissions reduction criteria as a critical screen in supplier qualification and product and service selection. By doing so, they not only reduce their own carbon footprint but drive behavior change signals deep into global supply chains." As leaders, she said, universities can model the power of sustainable procurement to their communities and stakeholders: "The impact of universities’ climate-focused procurement will increase more higher ed purchasers to align their emissions reduction asks of their many shared suppliers."

Ultimately, it would benefit all universities (and the world) to enhance sustainable purchasing practices and reporting. Increased transparency and data sharing among and across universities could have a huge ripple effect because most universities have almost identical spending patterns — building and construction services, fleet vehicles, computers, food services, lab supplies, furniture, etc.

For instance, Aramark, one of the country's largest food services and facilities companies, is a significant supplier to university campuses, as well as to healthcare, corporate campuses and sports and entertainment venues. "As a major provider to universities, we know firsthand that our services need to support and enable a net-zero future," said Alan Horowitz, vice president of sustainability at Aramark. He explained that with a growing number of universities setting Scope 3 reduction targets, Aramark has been "rolling out food waste prevention and plant-forward, lower carbon food programs that both reduce emissions and provide customers with delicious, healthy food."

Endowments and financed emissions

Endowment fund investments are also considered part of Scope 3. That part comes under Category 15: Investments, also referred to as "financed emissions."

Various stakeholders are demanding financed emissions data from universities. This is no surprise to Arizona State University, which already publishes a Sustainable Responsible Impact Investing report. Jeff Mindlin, ASU’s chief investment officer, said, "We’re pursuing mission-aligned investing as a way to do well while doing good for our communities and the world." He said the university has come to understand "that non-financial considerations, like environmental, social and governance, can improve returns and reduce risk. In addition, incorporating sustainable investment practices can reduce the emissions associated with our investments and reduce the university’s footprint as a whole."

Aligning spend and climate commitments

It is difficult for any organization to manage its GHG footprint or create a comprehensive reduction strategy without fully understanding Scope 3. Luckily, universities have organizations and leaders such as AASHE, SPLC and ASU to look to as they seek to better align their climate aspirations with meaningful action. Proactive suppliers such as Aramark are taking note of these market developments and meeting the carbon accounting needs of their customers.

University officials sit in a unique position in the market and can incentivize even more climate action by spending and investing through a Scope 3 lens. As they and many other organizations turn their attention to Scope 3, everyone needs to be ready to measure, manage, report and authenticate their own GHG emissions.

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