Sustainability in Higher Education: What’s Next in Carbon Measurement

This post is based on research that informed the definitive report on sustainability in higher education, “State of Sustainability 2016: The Life Cycle of Higher Education Facilities” from Sightlines and the University of New Hampshire.

Measuring campus carbon footprint is the bedrock of sustainability in higher education. The first coordinated sector-wide effort for climate action, the 2006 launch of ACUPCC¹, focused on measuring and reducing campus greenhouse gas (GHG) impact. To date, more than 500 colleges and universities are signatories and conduct regular GHG inventories.

But despite sustained attention to carbon measurement for over a decade, higher education institutions may underestimate their campus footprint by 30% or more, according to a recent report by Sightlines and UNH. Using a life cycle analysis approach, the report looks at the environmental impact of campus buildings from construction to demolition, and finds that emissions are not measured for a large portion of the campus life cycle.

What emissions are “missing”?

Throughout the lifespan of a campus building, associated emissions rise and fall:

  • During construction, emissions spike from carbon embedded in the production of building components.
  • Once the space is online, there are consistent operations emissions associated with occupants’ day-to-day resource consumption.
  • As the building ages, embedded carbon rises again when capital reinvestment is needed to refresh or replace building systems.
  • At the end of life, there is a last emissions spike associated with demolition and waste disposal.

2016 SoS Theoretical emissions

Much of this life cycle is not tracked in a typical higher education GHG inventory. Reporting standards require only Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, those directly attributable to campus activities like energy and refrigerant use. Reporting of Scope 3 emissions from indirect sources, such as purchased goods and services, is optional and rarely complete. As a result, most campuses do not measure Scope 3 emissions associated with the construction, capital reinvestment, or demolition stages, and only measure a portion of operations emissions.

Comparing the tracked emissions sources in a typical higher education inventory to a more comprehensive inventory suggests that these gaps are substantial. In the sample comprehensive inventory, Scope 3 emissions from construction and operations purchases accounted for 12% and 25%, respectively, of total emissions. With up to 37% of emissions “missing” from their inventories, higher education institutions lose out on opportunities to manage unmeasured emissions sources and fully understand the relative impact of all sources.

2016 SoS scope 3 emissions

What’s next in carbon measurement?

Carbon footprintmeasurement is a young and evolving discipline, and new tools are emerging to help institutions estimate these “missing” emissions.

Until recently, resources for full Scope 3 assessment were not mainstream; the GHG Protocol initiative issued its first guiding standard on the subject in 2014. But as available data for quantifying life cycle impacts becomes more sophisticated, US higher education is leading the global shift towards more complete Scope 3 estimation:

  • The newest version of UNH’s Campus Carbon Calculator/CarbonMAP tool, used by more than 90% of higher education institutions measuring campus carbon footprint, will estimate emissions from purchased goods and services as a function of dollars spent. Emissions factors are adjustable to account for sustainable procurement practices.
  • Second Nature’s newly-launched reporting platform includes fields so campuses may report these emissions.

Incorporation of additional Scope 3 sources will impact campus carbon footprints and may require sustainability leaders to re-think how they develop emissions reduction targets and plans. To hear one sustainability officer’s case for re-evaluating how Scope 3 emissions are managed, please read our guest op-ed by Chris Steuer, Sustainability Manager at Millersville University.

¹ Now known as the Second Nature Carbon Commitment