After Five Warm and Stormy Years, Higher Ed Leaders Keep Commitment to Confront Climate Change

By Georges Dyer

Photo: Presidents who signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) seen gathered in 2007. (Courtesy of Second Nature.)

Preparedness. Opportunity. Innovation. These words capture the essence of higher education’s critical role in creating a healthy, just and sustainable society.

Leaders in higher education are standing up to the greatest challenge of our time by providing education for sustainability, preparing graduates to create a sustainable economy. They are providing the opportunity for more students to access higher education by reigning in costs through energy efficiency and smart building. And by demonstrating sustainability solutions on campus, through research, and in partnership with local communities, they are driving the innovation needed for a true and lasting economic recovery.

Five years ago, a small group of visionary college and university presidents gathered to initiate the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). They were motivated by their conviction that higher education had the capacity and responsibility to make a significant commitment to climate and sustainability action for the sake of their students and society.

As the ACUPCC celebrates its fifth anniversary, 675 colleges and universities are currently active members of this dynamic network, representing more than one-third of U.S. college and university students. These institutions across the country have completed hundreds of projects to reduce energy use, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and save money in the process—demonstrating powerful and necessary leadership-by-example for the rest of society.

At the same time, higher education is in crisis. Challenges of accountability, affordability, workforce preparation and relevance are sweeping the sector. The volatile global economy remains unpredictable, with ramifications for every campus. And despite our best efforts, the climate issue becomes more daunting daily.

In June, presidents, provosts and business officers will gather at American University in Washington D.C. for the 5th Anniversary ACUPCC Climate Leadership Summit. The summit will directly respond to these challenges with a theme of Economic Renewal: Jump-Starting a Sustainable Economy Through the ACUPCCTo register for the June 21-22 summit, visit:

Our institutions can lead the way in promoting sustainable approaches to the major economic and social issues of our time. We can do this by cultivating preparedness, opportunity and innovation. How do we best connect education for sustainability with the evolving job market? How can sustainability initiatives cultivate cost savings and new funding sources? How can we effectively build partnerships with the corporate sector? How can our institutions be centers of innovative sustainability research and demonstration?


Understanding sustainability is required for career preparedness in the 21st century. Representatives from the ACUPCC’s corporate sponsors—which include large and small companies from Honeywell, Siemens, and Lockheed Martin to Organica Sustainable Water, Calstar Products, and GreenerU—along with many other business leaders have made it clear that they need graduates from all disciplines who understand sustainability. To date, higher education is has not delivered on the scale needed. However, there are more and more exciting efforts in this arena.

In 2009, the ACUPCC released a guide—Education for Climate Neutrality and Sustainability—to help schools tackle the academic component of the commitment. The latest reports from the network indicate that a subset of just 163 institutions now offer just under 10,000 sustainability-focused courses. There are so many new sustainability centers, institutes and degree programs that it is nearly impossible to keep up. Large universities like Arizona State and Florida Gulf Coast have embedded sustainability into their core mission. Higher education is stepping up to the challenge of creating new ways of teaching and learning that address the complex and discipline-crossing nature of “education for sustainability.”

Still, there is much work to be done. The vast majority of teaching and learning still reinforces ways of thinking that lead to unsustainable systems in every sector. The vast majority of students still graduate without a deep understanding of sustainability principles; without fully appreciating how the decisions they make in their person and professional lives impacts – directly and indirectly, now and in the future—the social and ecological systems upon which our civilization depends. Our graduates cannot know everything about everything. But to avoid unthinkable health, social and economic tragedies associated with sustainability issues like climate change, toxics, and extreme wealth disparity, they must know enough about how human activities—at today’s scope and scale—interact with the Earth’s biogeochemical cycles and affect communities around the world.

Earlier this year, a group of chief academic officers met to build on existing work and take it to the next level by mapping out a five-year strategy for integrating a sustainability perspective throughout higher education, which will be released in June. The ACUPCC network, and the learning community it represents will play a key role in catalyzing this work, and ensuring that higher education is fulfilling its societal obligation to graduate citizens who are prepared to run a thriving democracy. In the 21st century, on a small planet with more than 7 billion people, that means understanding sustainability, and entering the workforce motivated to lead the creation of a sustainable economy.


Higher education is under pressure to improve access and affordability to ensure as many people as possible have the opportunity to earn a degree. It’s critical to our economic well-being and competitiveness. The Obama administration has made it a priority. In this year’s State of the Union address, the president cut to the chase, stating: “Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid … States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.” Sustainability efforts are one effective, and essential, way to reduce costs now and mitigate financial risk for the future.

Through climate and sustainability efforts on campus, colleges and universities have avoided billions in operational costs. From the most recent ACUPCC reporting, 82% of signatories affirmed that their Climate Action Plan has saved their institution money. To date, 99 institutions have reported financial savings from climate action projects within a range: the cumulative total of the low-end of the range for each shows savings of more than $100 million. William Paterson University secured $1.2 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants for its Smart Buildings Project. Massasoit Community College secured funding to support energy efficiency and renewable energy initiatives, including $4.3 million for switchgear projects from the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management, and $1.6 million for solar PV systems from ARRA funding and Clean Energy Renewable Bonds. The University of Vermont raised $4.1 million in private donations for its new LEED Platinum Aiken Center. In total, 84 institutions have reported securing funding from outside sources totaling $170 million.

These financial benefits are critical to keeping tuition costs down. With volatile and increasing fossil fuel prices, investments in reducing energy use and generating safe, clean, renewable power will shield institutions from greater financial risks in the future. Perhaps more importantly, doing so creates powerful experiential learning opportunities, and creates an authentic culture of preparing students for relevant career opportunities in the 21st century. For example, when students live and study in green buildings and can touch and interact with the energy system generating power for them, they develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for the economic, health and environmental benefits and take that with them into their personal and professional lives.


In campus operations, ACUPCC institutions across the country have accomplished amazing things. Butte College in California became the first “grid-positive” campus, generating more electricity from solar panels than it consumed. Ball State University is completing the largest geothermal energy system in country, which will save the institution $2 million per year. In New England, the University of New Hampshire’s landfill gas project provides the campus with 85% of its power and will pay for itself in 10 years. Mount Wachusett Community College in Massachusetts and the University of Maine at Presque Isle have installed wind turbines on campus. Biomass plants have cut campus greenhouse emissions by 40% at Middlebury College and more than 50% at Green Mountain College.

With regard to research, ACUPCC institutions are advancing cutting edge technologies that will be critical to weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. Cornell University received an $80 million donation to create the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, which is involved with research efforts across the institution on clean energy solutions from solar, wind, geothermal, battery storage, fuel cells, biofuels, and more. During 2009-10, the University of Maine received nearly $50 million in external funding to support sustainability-related research, including the Maine Sustainability Solutions Initiative, UMaine’s Climate Change Institute, and UMaine’s Offshore Wind Laboratory and Forest Bioproducts Research Initiative.

By taking innovative approaches to engaging with communities beyond campus—locally, regionally, nationally and internationally—colleges and universities have gone further to advance the shift to a low-carbon, sustainable economy. The commitments to climate neutrality by Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College, were driving factors in the establishment of the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative, which coordinates cross-sector efforts to marshal the complex, systemic changes needed to move toward sustainability. Through the program, students have developed leadership skills working with community members in reducing energy use and saving money. The region secured significant state funding to drive economic development by expanding these efforts. Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi of the University of California Davis is heading up the academic partnerships for the R20 Regions of Climate Action initiative—an effort of subnational governments around the world to make meaningful progress in reducing emissions. In Washington, D.C., nine institutions recently signed the Mayor’s College and University Sustainability Pledge aimed at making Washington the nation’s greenest city through goals related to energy and buildings, jobs and community development, water, transportation, green education and training, research and innovation.

Economic renewal

The impacts of climate disruption and the suite of other interrelated symptoms of our unsustainable systems threaten the very viability of our complex global economy and civilization. These are not “environmental issues”—they are human issues. Higher education has a very real responsibility and moral obligation to continue and accelerate its leadership for sustainability, with institutions working together and beyond their campus borders to lead the systemic shifts needed.

Through the ACUPCC, higher education is the only sector with a cohesive critical mass committed to the scientifically necessary goal of climate neutrality. While many businesses, communities, and government agencies have targets to reduce emissions, none have sector-wide initiatives like the ACUPCC providing a common framework with the ultimate target of net-zero emissions. This is particularly important with the inability of the federal government and the international community to make meaningful progress. Since failing in Copenhagen in 2009 to agree on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, international climate negotiations have made little progress in securing binding treaties for emissions reductions, and federal climate legislation in the U.S. hasn’t been seriously considered since the Senate failed to pass a climate bill in 2010.

Of course the climate crisis is just one component of the sustainability challenge; the multifaceted, interrelated sustainability issues related to water, soil, toxins, peace, social equity and more, must be addressed in concert. But mitigating and adapting to climate change is an urgent matter. It is one that touches all of these other sustainability issues, and serves as a window to addressing them. The timeline for realizing this transition is short. A recent report from the International Energy Agency puts a fine point on the urgency, concluding that we have just five years to make major changes to avoid locking-in runaway climate change.

As the ACUPCC network celebrates its first five years of climate leadership in 2012, it is also launching ambitious goals for the next five years. These goals include expanding the reach and impact of the network, executing a strategy for accelerating education and research for sustainability throughout the sector, and advocating federal investments and policy changes to support higher education’s sustainability leadership.

Colleges and universities have the means and the mandate to lead the creation of a sustainable economy—an economy that more effectively meets the needs of more people for generations to come. Success will require continued bold leadership, increased collaboration across the sector, and new ways of thinking about how we teach, learn and operate for a healthy, thriving and sustainable future.

Georges Dyer is vice president of Second Nature.










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