Colleges and universities are a hotbed for climate change activism. Presidential candidates know this well since climate change is the top issue for younger voters in the 2020 election. Students on campus are demanding their institutions take action now. This includes not only tangible progress to carbon neutrality, but also divesting from investments in non-sustainable businesses.
So, what would students say about the work their own schools are doing to fight climate change? Across the board there is a sense of urgency in their call to action. They are stressing the need to do more, and to do it faster, since time is running out.
After attending the annual Second Nature Summit (which saw a record number of colleges in attendance), it is clear that at an institutional level there is an increased focus and desire to reach carbon neutrality and make the higher education sector a leader in our nation’s fight against climate change. The initial wave of sustainability investments in higher education has focused on actions that are both quick to achieve and not always on campus. It's clear that there is an immense opportunity and need to undertake the hard work of making sure that the actual buildings and on campus operations are both energy efficient and sustainable.
Here are my top takeaways from the Second Nature summit:
1. Colleges and universities are all-in on carbon neutrality. It’s rapidly becoming a question of when you’re going carbon neutral rather than if you are going to be carbon neutral. Having a clear action plan to tackle climate change – that includes implementing sustainability projects alongside learning opportunities both inside and outside the classroom – is quickly becoming a prerequisite to attracting students in the ultra-competitive world of higher education.
2. Four Pennsylvania schools made news at the Summit by announcing a new virtual solar PPA project whereby the schools will purchase renewable energy from a facility located in Texas. These efforts will reduce Scope 2 (indirect) emissions for the participating PA colleges and are a key component in the fight against climate change. This important step could be coupled with on campus upgrades and efficiency gains to ensure what is gained remotely isn’t lost at home.
3. Several schools are in the early stages of applying an internal price on carbon for projects that they will take into consideration when making investment decisions. Pricing in externalities that more appropriately value the true benefits of energy efficiency and other clean energy projects will help spur investment.
4. One area that was noticeably absent from conversation was efforts related to reductions in Scope 1 (direct) emissions from energy consumption on campus in the dorms and other buildings where work and life at a college take place. Reductions in campus emissions are the most direct and tangible way a college can take action on climate change – yet they are the area where many campuses are lacking most in terms of tangible progress.
Admittedly, it can be tough to implement projects on campuses that increasingly have year-round activity and involve historic buildings. However, they are ground zero for every institution's carbon emissions. With time short and the race to carbon neutrality underway, Efficiency Service Agreements (or energy efficiency-as-a-service) are increasingly a solution that colleges and universities are turning to expand the scope and accelerate the pace of what is possible.
Under an ESA, schools can have a third-party finance and own a wide range of energy efficiency upgrades under an arrangement that is similar to a traditional solar power purchase agreement (PPA). There are several benefits of an ESA, such as enabling colleges to complete larger, more impactful efficiency projects (with longer paybacks) that might not otherwise receive funding. (Related: Read the Wells College success story in this recently published case study from Metrus.)
Colleges are increasingly purchasing locally sourced food, so why not consider locally sourced carbon reductions through energy efficiency? There is no longer a need to spend extra to transport less clean energy from outdated and distant power plants when cheaper, cleaner options can be found in their own backyards.
If I were to hand out an overall grade, most colleges and universities would receive a solid B. I’d also encourage them to put in the extra work as outlined above, because an A is surely within their grasp.