Four green colleges putting sustainability principles into practice


Colleges and universities have been preaching sustainability for some time now, but in recent years, green initiatives have become more than just a box to check on a performative action checklist. Talking about sustainability is no longer enough, as students begin to consider the quantifiable efforts of colleges and universities when making their four-year decision.

The United States alone is responsible for 15% of global CO2 emissions. Furthermore, U.S. higher education institutions collectively emit 52,434 metric tons of carbon each year. Carbon dioxide has reportedly reached record-high levels and is the most dangerous and prevalent greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. Excessive carbon dioxide traps heat, resulting in global warming and climate change. Many risks are associated with climate change, including intense rainfall and flooding, rising sea levels, severe heat waves, and air pollution.

Making a positive impact

The current generation of college students is exceptionally carbon conscious and understands that significant changes must be made to combat the climate emergency. Nine in ten Generation Zs prioritize taking small actions daily to protect the environment, such as buying used clothing and sourcing locally grown food. These efforts can be attributed partly to how climate change has impacted their lives. 68% of this generation has been personally affected by extreme weather events, which underlines the urgency of addressing this crisis.

Young adults have begun to realize their voice and are using it to advance causes of particular importance to them. 75% of Gen Zs agree that the world has reached its tipping point regarding climate change. They have taken a broader approach to addressing climate change by considering the sustainable impacts of their more significant purchases and career paths. Students hold colleges to a higher standard by evaluating prospective schools’ sustainable business practices, carbon footprint, and community-based efforts while deciding which universities to attend.

Luckily, as environmental awareness grows among incoming college freshmen, so does sustainability action at their respective universities. Here is a rundown of four American colleges committed to shaping a greener environment:

1. Emerson College

Emerson College logo

Emerson College, located in Boston, Massachusetts, has prioritized sustainability across all aspects of its organization. In 2007, the College joined 700 other higher education institutions in signing the Carbon Agreement, through which they pledged to work towards carbon neutrality by 2030. Since then, the campus’s buildings have reduced their carbon footprint by 80%. 

This reduction was made possible in part by the organization’s dedication to meeting the internationally recognized Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards (LEED). Four of Emerson’s five residential halls and numerous academic buildings have earned LEED certification. 

Emerson’s partnership with Vicinity Energy has contributed significantly to the school’s push toward carbon neutrality. The majority of campus buildings are heated using Vicinity’s district energy system, which has tremendously increased the College’s energy efficiency. 

Since 2018, Emerson has purchased 100% wind electricity, leading the school to be named the largest green power user in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference for 2018-2019. This title sits alongside many sustainability awards and recognition the campus has received.

2. University of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania building exterior at sunset

University of Pennsylvania is an Ivy League research institution in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. UPenn has demonstrated its commitment to cutting carbon emissions across its organization steadily to reach its goal of 100% carbon neutrality by 2042. 

UPenn’s Climate and Sustainability Action Plan outlines its mission to mitigate the impacts of climate change and explore innovative ways of expanding its use of renewable energy to reduce carbon emissions. The University uses district energy to optimize energy efficiency at its advanced MOD 7 chilled water plant. 

Additionally, their new power purchase agreement has allowed them to construct solar facilities which will fuel 75% of their academic campus and health system’s electricity demand. These solar farms will support a cleaner and more efficient energy grid. They’ve also expanded recommissioning energy efforts in their labs, classrooms, and offices to stay on par with these sustainability objectives.

3. Arizona State University

Arizona State University, located in downtown Tempe, Arizona, aims to lead the world by example through its sustainability vision. With 65 LEED-certified buildings and 90 solar systems on campus, ASU has gone above and beyond in honoring this vision.

ASU has implemented a circular resource system to minimize waste and accomplish a sky-high reuse value. ASU tracks waste across its organization through a Zero Waste Annual Review and strives to improve its system’s aversion rates and re-circulation characteristics each year.

The University has additionally stayed on track with its positive climate initiatives by enhancing energy efficiency. ASU guides its conservation efforts with building-level energy monitors to identify energy waste. In 2019, 51% of the energy consumed by the University came from low-carbon sources. The organization has twice been recognized by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education for its sustainable purchasing practices, demonstrating its commitment to carbon neutrality.

4. Colorado State University

Colorado State University, located in Fort Collins, Colorado, has dedicated its Student Sustainability Center to provide resources for student-led sustainability work. This center has supported many green innovation projects, such as the Patchwork Initiative, a student-run project to minimize clothing consumption and build a culture around slow fashion and upcycling. This program periodically collects lightly used seasonal clothes from students, faculty, staff, and other community members to create anonymous opportunities for students needing professional clothing or seasonal necessities.

Moreover, the University’s Coalition for Sustainable Student Organizations (CSSO) partners with registered student organizations campus-wide to encourage collective efforts that can better accomplish impactful climate action.

CSU was among the world’s first institutions to calculate its nitrogen footprint. The school’s Nitrogen Footprint Project was created entirely by students at the Sustainability Center. They gathered data from across campus to calculate the nitrogen footprint, checked and double-checked the numbers, and wrote their results in an award-winning research paper.

Volunteers in face masks touch elbows at park clean up

Progressive environmental change does not strictly happen at the industry or governmental level. These green colleges demonstrate the reach of community-based sustainability with the support of intelligent, forward-thinking administration and eco-conscious students who light a fire under them.

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Bella Pace

Isabella Pace is a Marketing Specialist for Vicinity Energy and is based in Boston, Massachusetts. She writes about topics related to decarbonization, district energy, and creating a clean energy future.