Is your institution missing these two major opportunities to reduce emissions?

Campuses may be under-reporting emissions by more than one-third
By: | Issue: July, 2017
July 3, 2017

Higher education institutions are placing greater emphasis than ever on the environmental impact of their buildings, with many seeing sustainability as being as demonstrative of their thought leadership as their academic programs. However, few of these institutions are consistent in managing the environmental impacts of their buildings across different phases of the buildings’ life cycles—from construction, through operations to demolition—and the full life-cycle impact of campus buildings is rarely tracked.

The latest State of Sustainability in Higher Education report from the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute, finds that, in ignoring parts of the building life-cycle, campuses may be under-reporting campus emissions by more than one-third.  With this omission, institutions risk misunderstanding the true impact of the activities they are measuring—and missing opportunities for improvement.

The full cycle of building emissions  

Buildings generate varying levels of emissions throughout their entire lifecycle. First there is the construction process, a massive generator of emissions and other waste. Then there are the lesser emissions associated with the building’s day-to-day operations. As the building ages, spaces and systems are upgraded to keep the building operational—which retrofits can result in temporary small peaks in emissions. Finally, at the building’s end of life, there is another large peak in emissions that comes with the demolition of the space and the disposal of its components.

While higher education institutions have done a great deal of work in tracking energy- and transportation-related emissions generated during operations, the State of Sustainability report finds that these institutions are largely underestimating the extent of their carbon impact by overlooking two significant areas:

  • The emissions generated by construction and capital reinvestment projects.
  • The emissions impact of purchased consumables and services supporting operations.

Formalizing sustainability around capital projects

Many higher education institutions have embraced sustainability policies for new construction. As of Jan. 2017, more than 3,900 higher education projects hold LEED certification, while an overwhelming percent of participants in the Second Nature Carbon Commitment adapted policies to build new construction to LEED Silver or greater.

However, the data gathered for the State of Sustainability in Higher Education report indicates very limited adaptation of sustainability rating schemas for capital improvement projects.  Sustainable materials and systems come at a premium price—though of course the fact of a higher up-front cost often obscures the reality of a lower life-cycle cost for such materials and systems. Thus, projects undertaken with informal attention to sustainability risk seeing these green selections cut to keep projects within budget. Putting a formal policy in place for renovations would help ensure that the commitment to sustainability continues beyond new construction—and, not incidentally, can lower life-cycle costs for overall operations.

Procurement’s impact on sustainability

The procurement process, both in construction and during ongoing purchasing for operations, is another often-overlooked source of emissions. Unlike its counterparts in the United States, members of the Higher Education Funding Council for England have completed a greenhouse gas inventory survey that accounts for procurement. Survey data indicates that 37% of total emissions generated by UK higher education institutions are attributable to procurement, with 12% of those emissions related to construction procurement.

The 2015 National Association of Educational Procurement “Green Procurement Survey” found that, in the US, an underwhelming 33% of respondents work at an institution with a formal green procurement policy. However, there is some reason for optimism, as this was a 9% increase from 2009 data, revealing a shift towards formalized green procurement.

Tracking procurement and other optional indirect sources of emissions data presents an opportunity to make a greater impact, which should be reflected in carbon reduction goals and program implementation.

Opportunities for continuous improvement

Higher education business, facilities, and sustainability officers have invested a great deal over the past decades in reducing the institutional environmental footprint—and reaped the rewards in terms of improved efficiency in operations, advantages in recruitment and retention, and the satisfaction of knowing they are being good stewards of the campus facilities entrusted to their care. It’s clear that these investments pay dividends, both tangible and intangible.

We have a large and growing body of objective data that provides clear signals to the sector about how to move forward. Now, we need to implement the lessons this data teaches us—and adapt policies for effectively managing and incentivizing sustainable capital reinvestment, demolition, and procurement across the board.

—Jennifer Andrews is sustainability project director at the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute. Heather Finnegan is sustainability product manager at Sightlines.