campus sustainabilityThere has been an enormous growth in national and state-level voluntary campus sustainability programs in the U.S. in recent years. These programs not only help universities and colleges institutionalize sustainability principles into everyday processes and actions, but also create a common knowledge pool of resources and best practices that enable these institutions to build strong sustainable communities.

by Naimish Upadhyay, Green Economy Post

As centers of change, innovation and progress, universities and colleges are well-poised to take the lead on sustainability. By adopting good environmental practices, not only can campuses reduce their own environmental impact but also serve as role models for their larger communities. Incorporating sustainability principles in their policies and practices also enable institutions of higher learning to build student capacity for critical thinking and problem solving.

The recognition of these benefits has led to the creation of numerous campus sustainability initiatives in recent years. Universities and colleges are increasingly choosing to participate in state and nationwide sustainability networks that emphasize knowledge sharing and collaboration within and among institutions. Five of the most notable campus sustainability programs in the U.S. are described below. These range from formal commitments and reporting systems to independent assessments and student-driven conservation programs.

American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC)

The ACUPCC is a collective effort undertaken by a network of colleges and universities to minimize their institutional greenhouse gas emissions and promote sustainability research and education.

The commitment provides participating institutions a framework to implement comprehensive plans in pursuit of climate neutrality. Signatories agree to five broad time-bound commitments that include a campus-wide emissions inventory, setting up short-term and long-term emissions reduction actions and integrating sustainability into curriculum. All submitted documents, including action plans, inventories and progress reports, are made publicly available.

Developers of ACUPCC believe the commitment will not only decrease institutional carbon footprints, but will also help them generate strategic investment opportunities and cost savings, open up new funding opportunities and improve their competitive positioning.

The commitment was conceived in 2006, and is supported by three non-profit organizations: AASHE, ecoAmerica and Second Nature. To date, 675 colleges and universities have signed this commitment.

Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS)

STARS, developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), is a self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to gauge relative progress towards sustainability. The program aims to enable meaningful comparisons over time and across institutions by establishing a common standard of measurement for sustainability in higher education.

Institutions earn points in three main categories: Education & Research; Operations; and Planning, Administration and Student Engagement. There is also an Innovation category to recognize pioneering practices that are not covered by other STARS credits.

Participating colleges and universities are awarded one of five levels of ratings depending on the extent to which they fulfill the criteria. Ratings are based on an absolute scale of progress toward sustainability and are not relative to the performance of other institutions.

AASHE launched the pilot version of the reporting system in February 2008 and the STARS 1.0 (current version) edition in September 2009. STARS is available to any college or university in the U.S. or Canada. Currently, 121 institutions have registered for this program.

Sustainable Endowments Institute – College Sustainability Report Card

The College Sustainability Report Card is an independent sustainability evaluation of colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. In contrast to the academic focus on sustainability in research and teaching, the Report Card focuses on institutional operations and endowment investment activities to identify institutions that are leading by example on sustainability. The aim is to provide accessible information for schools to learn from each others’ experiences and to help high school students identify a sustainable college.

The assessment is made across 43 indicators in 9 main areas of policies and practices, such as Food & Recycling, Student Involvement, Transportation, Endowment Transparency and Shareholder Engagement.

The data is collected by surveying administrators and students at target institutions as well as gathering information from publicly available sources. The annual Report Cards are made available to the public free of charge.

Now in its fourth year, the program evaluated a total of 332 schools in the U.S. and Canada in the College Sustainability Report Card 2010. The report is published by the Sustainable Endowments Institute, a special project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Alliance to Save Energy – Green Campus Program

The Green Campus Program is a student-driven California-wide campus sustainability initiative. Under this program, students work on energy-conservation projects on campuses, such as building general campus awareness, incorporating energy conservation and efficiency into course curricula, and advocating operational changes.

The program is run by the Alliance to Save Energy, a non-profit organization that advocates energy efficiency to combat global climate change. The organization supports and funds student interns at each of the participating institution, who in turn work closely with administrators, faculty and staff to create campus energy efficiency strategies.

The Green Campus program currently serves 12 California university campuses and 3 California community college campuses.

National Wildlife Federation – Campus Ecology Program

The Campus Ecology Program, developed and run by the National Wildlife Federation, is a conservation program that aims to promote practical conservation projects on campus and train a new generation of environmental leaders. Since its inception in 1990, more than 3000 specific ecological conservation projects have been completed on college campuses around the U.S.

As part of this initiative, the National Wildlife Federation provide practical training and incentives to college and university communities, organize student competitions, and supports a publicly shared knowledge base of effective conservation practices.

© 2010, Naimish Upadhyay. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Naimish Upadhyay (9 Articles)

Naimish Upadhyay recently graduated with an MS degree in Environmental Science & Policy from the University of South Florida, where he focused on sustainability policies of Florida businesses and local governments. While in graduate school, he was an active member of the Emerging Green Builder’s USF chapter ( as well as the Student Taskforce on Campus Sustainability at his university. Naimish previously taught college level Environmental Science and Environmental Biotechnology in India. Given his research and project experience, Naimish is eager to build a professional career in the areas of business sustainability, environmental management systems, sustainability assessment and reporting, and corporate social responsibility. Naimish looks forward to reader feedback and can be reached via email

  • Campus Climate Solutions

    I enjoyed reading this post, however I have noticed that there seem to be numerous articles that are almost “puff pieces” about sustainability in higher education. I think that colleges and universities were definitely leaders of this movement a few years ago, however many of them have fallen behind the curve. I think that wal-mart’s recent actions to count their supply chain emissions shows more leadership than most American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment signatories have shown. Harsh, I know, but it’s true.

  • John Whitney AIA

    I’m working with AASHE at this time to develop a comprehensive database for renewable energy installations at institutions of higher education. We are starting with solar installations and will hopefully continue with wind generation, geothermal heating/cooling, and biofuel developments.

    To help us all understand the scope of the impact of higher education leadership in this area I would like to note that our preliminary data search has identified over 240 institutions with solar installations with a total capacity of 129.73 MW.