Fossil Emissions on College Campuses Declined by 22% Over Past Decade, According to Sightlines-University of New Hampshire Report

“State of Sustainability in Higher Education 2017” report finds gains in energy efficiency at many campuses have been partly offset by campus growth

Guilford, Conn. – February 28, 2018 – North American colleges and universities achieved significant improvements in normalized emissions efficiency from 2007-2016, however the overall environmental impact of those gains was minimized by widespread growth in the total amount of square footage on campuses during that same time period, according to a new report from Sightlines and the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Sustainability Institute.

The collaborative study found that there was a 22 percent reduction in normalized stationary fossil emissions per square foot and an 18 percent reduction in normalized purchased electric emissions for the 10-year period from 2007-2016. Meanwhile, eight out of 10 campuses supported more square footage in 2016 than they did in 2007, which means that those gains in emissions efficiency were partially offset by the growth in total campus space that requires energy for operation.

“Higher education business, facilities and sustainability officers have invested a great deal toward reducing resource use, waste and negative ecological impact in the last decade,” said Dr. Tom Kelly, founding executive director of the UNH Sustainability Institute. “Unfortunately, conflicting values and priorities are cancelling out what should be win-win situations. Incremental decisions to add space, renovate buildings or replace systems have to be balanced against. Without a sustainable approach to campus planning, institutions risk locking themselves into decades of future energy demands.”

The report, “State of Sustainability in Higher Education 2017,” analyzes campus efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. It is the third annual benchmarking report from Sightlines and UNH.

“We have a large and growing body of objective evidence that has begun to provide signals about how campuses can work toward a sustainable future,” said Mark Schiff, president of Sightlines, a Gordian company and the leader in facilities intelligence and analysis for higher education institutions. “Higher education leaders should embrace the lessons that this data provides to recognize the need for campus rightsizing, reach for the next technology to replace natural gas as a core energy source, focus on energy efficiency, and manage the technical capability of mechanical systems.”

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

  • Campus leaders recognize the importance of improving energy efficiency from an environmental and financial perspective, and have invested accordingly. In the last decade, fossil fuel efficiency has improved by 15 percent and electric efficiency has improved by 3 percent.
  • Higher education has seen a nearly-complete transition to natural gas due to the convergence of external factors (e.g., price signals) and on-campus factors (e.g., need to replace aging utility infrastructure, pressures to reduce post-recession operating budgets and increased focus on climate change mitigation). As a result of this fuel switching, natural gas now accounts for 92 percent of stationary fossil fuel consumption across the sector.
  • Despite improved emissions efficiency per square foot, the addition of total square footage at eight in 10 college campuses from 2007-2016 has driven up overall energy usage at many of them. Nearly half (46 percent) of these “growth campuses” now consume an equal or greater amount of total fossil fuel than in 2007, and 56 percent of these campuses now consume an equal or greater amount of total electricity. This creates a challenge for institutions to limit their overall campus carbon footprints.

The “State of Sustainability in Higher Education 2017” report was based on data from more than 370 colleges and universities that provide information to Sightlines, the largest third-party verified database of higher education facilities data in North America. These institutions represent different Carnegie classes, represent all geographic regions, and are comprised of both public and private institutions.