The Sustainable Campus (Trends and Innovations)

Campus Carbon Emissions

A scientific analysis of energy usage and carbon emissions data from 343 U.S. colleges and universities found that emissions per square foot declined by 13 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to a new report from Sightlines and the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Sustainability Institute.

At the same time, energy usage per square foot was down just 2 percent over the identical eight-year period. This is because most of the progress in reducing campus carbon footprints came as a result of switching from coal and oil to natural gas, according to the report.

The first comprehensive report of its kind in the higher-ed community was based on a study of a collective 1.5 billion square feet of campus facilities, which are operated by 343 colleges and universities across 44 states. The nationally representative sample consisted of both public (60 percent) and private (40 percent) institutions.

Explaining the Results

“The disconnect between the decline in carbon emissions and the minimal change in energy consumption was surprising at first,” observes Jennifer Andrews, project director for the UNH Sustainability Institute. “We didn’t anticipate that we’d see more success in campus emissions reductions from switching fuel sources than from energy conservation or efficiency, given that the latter have traditionally been touted as the more cost-efficient and transformative strategies.”

Andrews also notes that while the decline in carbon emissions per square foot is a positive step forward, the absolute decline in emissions was significantly smaller — about 5 percent over the same time frame — and essentially in line with the reduction in emissions reported by other U.S. industries.

“If we in higher ed truly want to be national leaders in tackling climate change, a continued shift to clean — ideally renewable — energy is obviously vital,” she says. “In addition, however, these trends indicate a real need to drastically accelerate campus energy conservation efforts and efficiency investments.”

Additional Research

The new findings on campus energy usage come in the aftermath of research published in Sightlines’ 2015 “State of Facilities in Higher Education” report, which identified a trend of many campuses accumulating more space to maintain and fewer students to fill it.

“In the years following the Great Recession, colleges and universities experienced a strong period of increasing student enrollment, so many of them added new campus space to accommodate that growth,” says James Kadamus, senior advisor at Sightlines. “However, in the past few years we’ve started to see this trend reverse, as fewer students are coming out of high school and entering college. This means that campuses are actually increasing their carbon footprints by adding space.”

Other key findings from the Sightlines-UNH report included the following:

  • Campus size, density, age profile and capital investment portfolios are the four key drivers of carbon emissions and energy consumption.
  • Campuses that shifted capital investment to include mechanical systems such as HVAC and utility infrastructure made more progress in reducing emissions and reducing energy use.
  • Public campuses improved more than private campuses, possibly reflecting stronger public policy goals.
  • Schools with buildings of an older age profile had to spend more just to keep consumption stable.
  • Institutional commitment and leadership matters. For example, campuses that have signed on to Second Nature’s Climate Leadership Commitment had lower emissions than non-signatories.

“It’s also important to note that public policy and incentives are critical if we’re going to make meaningful progress on this issue,” says Kadamus. “Campuses in regions with strong energy incentives consumed less, while those in states with weaker policies consumed more. Likewise, campuses in regions where energy is cheap consumed more than campuses in high-cost regions, even when their climates were similar.”

The report was based on data collected by Sightlines and analyzed using the Campus Carbon Calculator (CCC) methodology, created and made available by UNH and widely accepted as the preferred tool for calculating college and university greenhouse gas emissions. A web-based version of the CCC called CarbonMAP (Carbon Management and Analysis Platform) was developed in a partnership between Sightlines and UNH, and has now been used by more than 550 North American campuses to measure and manage energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

The UNH Sustainability Institute ( facilitates integration of diverse perspectives, disciplines and knowledge to address sustainability’s grand challenges. As a university-wide institute, it supports innovation across curriculum, operations, research and engagement, and is recognized for its unique, creative approach and thought leadership.

The full Sightlines–UNH report can be downloaded from

This article originally appeared in the issue of .