Higher Ed Makes Strides Toward Carbon Neutrality, Sustainability

Colleges and universities that are committed to practices concerning energy use to combat climate change, which is also attracting students. A 2023 survey report indicates about two-thirds (67%) of parents and students would contribute to their decision to apply to or attend a particular school, according to The Princeton Review.

And higher education is stepping up. The report ranked U.S. colleges and universities for superb sustainability practices, a strong foundation in sustainable education and a healthy quality of life for students on campus. Schools at the top of the list of its Top 50 Green Colleges include College of the Atlantic, Dickinson College, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and Emory University.

Some schools are doing stellar jobs in the sustainability realm. In “The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings” for 2022, which assessed universities according against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Arizona State University emerged as a top school for sustainability. The university runs the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation, the hub of the school’s sustainability research initiatives. The Institute offers transdisciplinary degree programs focused on finding practical solutions to social, economic and environmental challenges.

Hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities have signed onto the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). This project, begun in 2006, was undertaken by a network of college and university presidents who made institutional commitments to promote the research, education and community engagement efforts needed to create a sustainable society, and to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions from specified sources on their own campuses. To date, approximately 700 institutions, representing six million students, have signed onto ACUPCC and have committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030.

According to Second Nature, a Boston-based non-profit that strives to create a sustainable society by transforming higher education, reports that 11 schools have achieved carbon neutrality so far. Three New England colleges – Bates, Colby and Middlebury – met this goal seven to 10 years ago. 

Some schools have taken bold steps on their campuses to cut carbon emissions. Smith College is working on its Sustainability and Climate Action Management Plan, launched in 2010. Over the years, it has pursued various strategies and implemented technologies to meet the 2030 deadline. In the summer of 2022, Smith started work on a geothermal campus energy project designed to reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent.

While Smith is involved in major initiatives to reach net neutrality, other schools are opting for a variety of lower visibility but high impact efforts. One measure many schools are taking is switching from paper textbooks to digital courseware.

Book publishing is the third-largest industrial greenhouse gas emitter, according to data from Wordsrated. For the U.S. alone, the publishing industry uses approximately 32 million trees to product books annually. Globally, the production process emits more than 40 million metric tons of CO2. Students are still required to purchase textbooks, which can have a very short shelf life.

BibliU, a digital learning enablement platform, offers course materials and digital content to higher education institutions. The firm partners with more than 2000 publishers and currently works with 111 U.S. colleges and universities, providing more than two million students with instant access to digital courseware. The company has cut roughly 71 million kg of CO2 with its offering so far. And in the process, BibliU’s digital courseware enables more equitable, effective and efficient learning, helps boost performance, provides publishers with a profitable digital channel and helps reduce the administrative burden on schools through workflow automation.

“We give institutions an easy lever to pull if they want to make a big impact on the carbon on campus today,” said Dave Sherwood, CEO and Co-Founder of BibliU. “If they go with BibliU, the effect is across their entire student body. Those colleges then have a large local impact.”

The company is now currently looking at other areas outside of learning content. “We’re currently working with partners on assessments and individualized learning programs, essentially software that can provide students with personalized, adaptive quizzes aligned to content, ensuring that each student performs significantly better,” Sherwood said.