How College Campuses Can Lead in Fighting Climate Change

As bastions of knowledge, progress, and innovation, it’s not surprising that colleges are often at the forefront of the battle against climate change, striving to implement energy efficiency, clean energy, and sustainability curricula and programs.
Solar panels take center stage near McGraw Tower, a Cornell University landmark
Credit: Courtesy Cornell

This blog was written by Anne Kim, an NRDC summer intern from Cornell University

As bastions of knowledge, progress, and innovation, it’s not surprising that colleges are often at the forefront of the battle against climate change, striving to implement energy efficiency, clean energy, and sustainability curricula and programs.

When college campuses engage in the green movement, they not only reduce energy waste and increase utility bill savings, they also invest in the future by encouraging their students to become leaders and activists with a genuine interest and concern for the world. More than 90 colleges across the country have distinguished themselves as leaders against climate change, pledging to become carbon-neutral in three years.

Every new solar panel and compost bin on campus is heartening news for the green movement, but there are many creative, innovative ways for colleges to make their campuses more environmentally-friendly. 

Cutting-edge environmental technologies integrated into the design and construction of Cornell’s Klarman Hall (e.g., green roofs, occupancy and daylight sensors, energy efficient ventilation, etc.)
Credit: Courtesy Cornell

For instance, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, developed an award-winning Climate Action Plan (CAP) in 2009 to promote a commitment to education, research, and outreach while cutting net carbon emissions to zero by 2035. Since 2008, Cornell has reduced gross emissions by more than 30 percent, and cut them almost in half from 1990 levels.

The university corroborated its pledge to sustainable energy systems by implementing key strategies, such as using renewable sources to supply electricity, replacing traditional, energy-intense chillers with a deep lake water cooling system, phasing out on-site coal combustion with a more efficient combined heat power plant, and dramatically reducing energy demand with an aggressive conservation program.

As a Cornell student, I can verify that the school’s commitment to creating a greener, more sustainable campus is not only transparent in its infrastructure and curricula, but it also manifests in the students’ everyday lives.

Last year, the Tompkins County region—of which Cornell is an integral part—struggled with a severe drought, raising concerns over water shortages and discoloration. In order to reduce its water usage, the university ran vigorous campaigns to raise awareness on the local drought and to promote water conservation.

Students were required to attend meetings with Resident Advisors, who urged them reduce their time in the shower and to be more conscious of water-wasting habits, such as leaving the faucet on while brushing teeth. Also, the university replaced the showerheads in its dormitories with ultra-low-flow models. And, for months, the campus was plastered with posters reminding students of the severity of the drought, suggesting tips to reduce water usage, and promoting events to continue a discussion on water conservation.

Cornell University is notable for both its pursuit of green initiatives and its agility in adapting to the local drought—but there are also many more climate-change-fighting campuses across America.

Here are just a few ideas and examples:

  • California’s Stanford University received a Visionary Award from the Alliance to Save Energy last year for beginning its own energy efficiency innovation program, Stanford Energy System Innovation (SESI). Designed to reduce emissions by a whopping 68 percent, SESI is committed to transforming the university’s energy supply from a 100 percent fossil fuel-based combined heat and power plant to grid-sourced electricity and a more efficient electric heat recovery system. Although developed by Stanford, SESI has garnered international attention for its potential to become the first large-scale example that employs the technology roadmap for heating and cooling recommended by the International Energy Agency.
  • The University of Maryland has already achieved many of its goals established in its original Climate Action Plan. They include: creating a Sustainability Studies Minor (now the largest minor at the school); obtaining 76 percent of its purchased electricity from renewable sources in 2015; reducing emissions from solid waste by 99 percent since 2005; increasing the percentage of commuters who use alternative transportation (such as carpooling, walking, biking, or public transit); and decreasing energy consumption by 20 percent or more in select buildings through the implementation of performance contracts.  Also, in 2011, students at the University of Maryland established the Food Recovery Network, the largest student movement against food waste and hunger in America. To date, the network has recovered and donated more than 2 million pounds of food that would have otherwise been wasted.
  • Goucher College, also in Maryland, has not only implemented motion-detecting sensors, ultra-low-flow showerheads, and automatic hand dryers, it also passed a policy in 2009 to plan all new buildings or major renovations to existing buildings with a goal of achieving at least a Silver rating according to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green-Building Rating System. Moreover, the college has also partnered with Bon Appétit Management Company on its path toward greater sustainability. Greenhouse gases generated by the production, distribution, and waste of food are responsible for one-third of global emissions. Bon Appétit, which declares itself the first restaurant company to connect food and climate change, is dedicated to reducing the climate-changing impacts of food choices through key strategies like prioritizing plant-based proteins, preventing and reducing food waste, trimming transportation, decreasing deforestation, and supporting local and sustainable foods.

Colleges not only have the capacity to encourage their students to engage in sustainable habits and behaviors, they are also in the unique position to teach and demonstrate to other colleges how to implement innovative strategies to also make their campuses more environmentally friendly.

With their stores of brilliant minds, cutting-edge research and technology, and commitment to bettering the world, college campuses give us a reason to hope for some triumphs in the war against climate change.