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How to Set and Achieve Ambitious Green Goals

Episode 128

November 15, 2022 27 minutes


EAB’s Michael Fischer and Jon Barnhart guide listeners through the process of evaluating, prioritizing, and gaining leadership buy in on making their institution into a carbon net zero enterprise. The two explain how to assess costs and ROI on energy efficiency investments and how to engage the broader campus community in these efforts.

Finally, they offer tips on how to sustain and build on early momentum as institutional leaders and priorities shift over time.



0:00:13.0 Michael Fischer: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we explore efforts by universities to transform their campuses into sustainable, energy-efficient, carbon net zero enterprises. Our experts urge university leaders in the US to look overseas for inspiration and ideas on how European universities are pursuing this mission and to act with intention to accomplish similar measures on their own campuses. Or to say it another way, think global, act local. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:55.1 MF: Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Michael Fischer. I’m a director in our research advisory division. I’m joined today by my colleague, Jon Barnhart. Jon, thanks for joining us.

0:01:06.2 Jon Barnhart: Thanks for having me, Michael.

0:01:08.2 MF: Today, we’re going to be talking about sustainability. Certainly, a lot of conversation and talk that we could have, especially as we’re recording this on the day of the US Elections and there’ll be some consequences related to that. But as we open this conversation, Jon, I know that you have been out and about traveling the world recently. And so let’s start this conversation globally. When you talk to the universities and others overseas, how are they thinking about sustainability and their sustainability planning?

0:01:40.8 JB: Now, Michael, I think it’s a pretty different perspective than what we see here in the US. When you get outside of the United States in particular. Even if you just go up north to Canada, you immediately see a focus on sustainability that really is double or triple the effort that we see sometimes here in the States. And then when you cross the pond into the UK and into Europe, you see an increased focus from there. And I would say that they’ve been ahead of us for quite a bit of time now. And the UN Sustainable Development Goals developed in 2015 really were a reflection of a lot of the efforts that many of those countries and many of those universities had taken on well before the rest of the world was ready to push ahead. And so their formalization in 2015 really just was a sort of codifying of things they had done for a long time and goals that they were eager to reach by the year 2030. Not to alarm anyone, but we’re closer to 2030 now than we are to 2015. And I think we’re still making good progress in some of those areas.

0:02:35.6 JB: But a lot of those universities are trying to hustle their countries forward and making greater strides toward the UN SDGs, which we’ll see expand across the globe. And so if you’re looking for guiding lights out there in the world, I would look to your other university and college colleagues in the UK and in Europe in particular.

0:02:52.5 MF: Now, to be fair, part of that is actually because those universities don’t have much of a choice. It’s much more common outside the United States for governmental bodies or regulators to have put in place key deadlines or targets for institutions to achieve their scope one and two and scope three net neutrality emissions. And in fact, some universities tells us that it is a huge challenge because they don’t have a foreseeable pathway of getting to these targets without some major offsetting or some major shortcuts that would lead to political pressures and blowback on their side of the equation as well.

0:03:29.8 JB: Absolutely, 100% right about that. And I think that’s one of the challenges we’re really starting to see across the globe right now in 2022 is the political nature of sustainability really is sort of front and center for us to see. Certainly, the war in Ukraine is having an immediate and direct impact on energy consumption and the ability to get sustainable energy sources up and running in parts of Europe. But we also see it here in our elections in the US. We’re going to elect 36 governors during today’s midterm election. A lot of the things that happen at that state level are what ultimately drives federal policy in the US as it relates to sustainability. Everything from the ability for a state to generate its own sustainable energy sources and develop its own utility infrastructure, all the way up to the ability to spend that federal money that we’ve seen the Biden administration put into large relief packages like the Inflation Reduction Act and like the CHIPS Act earlier. So pretty big political consequences across the board here. And I think we are really starting to have to reconcile what those targets mean and how much can we get done in the next seven plus years here as we creep toward that 2030 deadline.

0:04:41.8 MF: And I think that some in the United States who work in higher education may not also realize just how important sustainability is from a rankings perspective internationally. Whether it’s the Times Higher Education, THE, Impact Rankings, or even a ranking I think was just released in the last 24 hours, Jon.

0:05:00.6 JB: Yeah, and I think this is a really big shift for universities. Michael, when you and I were looking at colleges, we could find plenty of rankings about how green our prospective campuses were. And all that really meant was were their automatic light switches in the dormitory spaces? Did the dining halls move away from Styrofoam and toward plastic or reusable? Was every student given a plastic water bottle when they came onto campus? Today, these rankings are a lot more intricate and they really are looking at the university’s holistic approach to sustainability. We’re going beyond just these sort of facilities and administrative components and getting into the curriculum and the education. How well does this institution embed the lessons of sustainability and climate change into their core curriculum? What do the co-curricular and extracurricular experiences that students take on have to do with climate change and sustainability?

0:05:56.7 JB: And that goes beyond there into the research. How well does this university integrate things like the UN Sustainable Development Goals into its research initiatives and then even further into its ability to impact its local community? And so these rankings are pretty holistic. And I think universities need to do two things to make sure that they are continuing to address where the market is moving. The first is making sure that they’re taking an equally holistic approach. I think most schools across the globe are doing something related to sustainability. I don’t always think they think about the full wrapper in the way that some of these ranking organizations do. So first of all, make sure you’re adopting that holistic mindset. And second of all, make sure you’re getting credit for it. It might seem small if you’re the last school in your state to adopt some of these initiatives, but there are no small baby steps here.

0:06:44.6 JB: It’s really important that you make sure you’re putting out there what you’re doing, not only because it’ll help you spike in these rankings, but because these rankings have a direct impact on the kinds of students that come to your campus, the kinds of investors that engage in your research and in your fundraising, and the kinds of faculty and community members that you’re going to attract to you. So yeah, big shift in these rankings. And I think it’s a really important space for schools to focus.

0:07:05.8 MF: And I would call attention to the fact, as well, but the UN SDGs… The UN Sustainable Development Goals, aren’t as environmentally focused as people might perceive. So if you’re having trouble getting the conversation started on your campus about being evaluated against the green side of the goals. Consider some of the others, which includes things like access to education, first generation or historically marginalized groups access, women’s equity and access to education, community engagement. These are places where you might have allies or buy-in from other parts of campus that can drive that conversation about evaluation and ranking forward in a way that can circumvent some of the stymie or tension efforts related to sustainability more directly. But Jon, I think this is a great segue. You already teed up some of the touch points we might discuss. Thinking about sustainability holistically as something that everybody on campus has a role to play on, but everybody having a slightly different perspective on how a university should go about driving towards these very lofty green goals. Why don’t we start with probably the most obvious one, which is students. What are you hearing from universities that we work with from your connections and research offices and amongst the administration about where student energy and enthusiasm for sustainability is evolving these days?

0:08:27.2 JB: I think evolving is exactly the right term to use here, Michael. Certainly our generation, when we were in school, cared deeply about these issues. We see a renewed energy though for the kinds of students that are coming onto your campuses today. And similar to what I said about the rankings organizations, these students take a holistic approach in evaluating their university’s sustainable and green initiatives. So again, it’s not just about reusable trays in the dining hall. It goes all the way up to things like divestment. This is a hot button issue. We’ve seen sort of spike and then decline across the last couple of decades here. It feels like we’re in one of those moments again, where there’s a lot of student and community engagement around university endowment divestment from carbon fuels. We don’t just see it here in the US where the endowments are the largest. We’re seeing a lot of momentum in Canada and huge momentum in the UK. In fact, I think just a couple of weeks ago, 100 universities in the UK, which is about 65% of their total post-secondary education outlay, announced that they will be divesting in part or in full from fossil fuel companies.

0:09:30.2 JB: That gets us to about 18 billion pounds in endowment dollars. And if my calculation is right, that’s about $21 billion US of total endowments that will now be off limits to carbon and carbon fueling companies. And so that’s a pretty major shift when we talk about it. This isn’t one or two schools here or there. This is an entire country’s university system moving in this direction. And I think it’s that kind of pressure that students want to see. But the student of today also recognizes that divestment isn’t enough if university policies about engaging with these companies don’t also match. So when we think about the research enterprise, we have this hot debate right now about should we be taking money from some of these companies? Many of our universities have historically had funded research relationships with petroleum companies. And it’s a valid question. On the pro side, these companies are trying. At least they say they’re trying, to make marginal changes in the way that their product impacts the environment. And so universities certainly want to be a part of that solution by surrendering that funding or giving up on working with those companies. There’s a fear that those of us who are pushing in the right direction might lose our seat at the table here. And so I think this is a good debate for us to be having right now. And certainly, it’s the students that are pushing this debate to the forefront of a lot of college campuses. But Michael…

0:10:47.2 MF: I think the frustration that I often hear on campus is that universities are places that have their own responsibilities and their own actions. And that’s… While students have a lot of enthusiasm and energy, it can be really focused on those broad societal or policy decisions. While they don’t focus on those relatively light lifts, but important activities directly around the facilities or estates of the institution and trying to encourage students to participate in turning off the lights or turning down the heat or off the air conditioning when they’re not at use. Participating in campaigns to reduce energy usage within individual residential halls, or in fact, showcasing the stuff behind the walls and above the roofs that facilities is doing and needs support on in order to reduce the carbon emissions or utilities activities of the institution. It’s not as sexy as those broader policy efforts. And so it could take a little bit more concentrated activity and initiative to try to align student energy with that broad level of expertise.

0:11:54.8 JB: I think that’s a really good point, Michael. And it strikes me that maybe I think you probably alluded to this here. I think our facilities leaders are certainly cognizant and aware of the opportunity in some of those smaller, maybe less sexy, but still very important issues. I’m curious if you see the same kind of positive reception from the business administration leaders of universities. Are they really on the same page about the value of these efforts? And to the extent that you think they’re not, what do you think university leaders can do to help break through some of the inertia that often comes with these smaller scale efforts?

0:12:28.5 MF: A lot of the challenge comes around that initial investment of funding there. Oftentimes the value of sustainability efforts as it relates to efficiency or emissions reductions is that they do have dividends. They do turn over an ROI, even relatively mild investments in office sensors, for example, that can turn off the lights or turn off the air conditioning or heat when not occupied by somebody. Before the pandemic, the general ROI for those types of investments was about three years to save enough on electricity and on other bills in order to pay for the upfront costs. In light of the new ways of working and the amount of time that’s being spent in many offices on campus, we’re hearing reports that that ROI is 11 months now or even less. And so if we can get some of that upfront funding, whether it’s through grants or state appropriations, alumni giving or fundraising, even student fees, and then start those cycles of improvement and reinvestment in the university’s efforts, that can have an ultimately strong win across the board. I tend to hear from business officers that some of them are at universities where sustainability is avant-garde, but people don’t want to talk about the money.

0:13:43.9 MF: And other institutions, everyone wants to talk about the money, but no one really wants to talk about the sustainability side. And so they’re trying to find a way to bridge those gaps together and provide maybe a moderating perspective that we have to consider both sides of the green equation if we’re gonna be successful here.

0:14:00.9 JB: I think that’s a really important point for all schools to consider. But you’ve raised another good challenge that we probably want to unpack while we’ve got the time together here today, which is that upfront funding has always been a challenge for almost any strategic initiative that a university wants to pursue. And I bet a lot of schools are looking down the pipeline of a potential recession and saying, “Gee, that upfront funding is about to get harder for us to justify investing.” You add on top of that the challenges with global supply chain, and you’ve probably got a pretty sticky situation for a lot of schools thinking about making these investments and seeing that ROI as quick as possible. How do you think universities can navigate these dual challenges that they’re facing right now to make sure that they can have the impact that they want to have on their campus?

0:14:42.4 MF: Well, first, I would say the greenest building that you can ever build is the one that you choose not to build, which is to say that a hyper attention to space utilization and the effectiveness of your existing estate is crucial. And efforts, and especially in light of more virtual instruction, more hybrid and remote employees that are part of our labor force on campus, we need to reconsider the amount of space we’re setting aside for these activities and then monitor its use so that we can redeploy underutilized spaces for things like student collaboration zones, research clusters for faculty or community outreach spaces, as opposed to always needing to build new. There was an old mantra that no president wanted to be known as the one that shrunk the university campus. But I think now we can pivot that and say that some presidents want to be known as the one that got their university to carbon net zero. And so they’re willing to make some of the sacrifices around the actual amount of real estate or space square footage they have as part of their campus in order to make that conversation take place. The other thing that I would say here is that there’s a really fundamental challenge that I think we’re gonna face, especially in light of the recessionary pressures around travel.

0:15:57.8 MF: This is the great unanswered question because we know that travel is important for globalized education, for providing opportunities for study abroad and mobility for students, for supporting faculty engagements and research, but it’s extremely carbon intensive. And there are institutions in continental Europe that are already carbon budgeting their individual departments and saying, “This is the amount of carbon that you can spend on an annual basis. And if you use it all up, you cannot travel. You will not get university approval to do that, or you need to buy it off another department in a marketplace of activity.” What travel do we prioritize? What kinds of academic conferences do we keep in the virtual environment versus the ones that we draw together? How do we engage in partnership development to commercial activity or even the recruitment of international students when travel is not as viable an activity anymore is very much something that is being experimented on. But I think it’s going to require some hard sacrifices that students, faculty and staff all almost equally will have to bear.

0:17:03.8 JB: That’s an incredibly important point, Michael. And I think one of the areas where we’ll see a play out in the most difficult and political ways is on the faculty side. So much of an academic’s career is built around the ability to be in person for some of these major conferences. Many PhD students meet their first postdoc advisor at a conference. Many postdocs meet the department chair of the department they’ll eventually be an assistant professor in. Many assistant professors meet their own postdocs and their own graduate students at these conferences. And sometimes these conferences take place in pretty far-flung parts of the world. We saw a major drop off in the ability for students to take that next academic career step during the pandemic when there simply were no travel options. And then in 2021 what we saw was countries that opened back up quicker saw higher rates of students able to make that matriculation than in countries where travel was still restricted. So there’s a tangible demonstrable impact on the academic professional pipeline without that travel. I think you’re right though, which is we’re trying to get back to a… As close to normal as possible version of that academic career pipeline where we’re able to go to these conferences and meet each other.

0:18:15.7 JB: But increasingly, we’re trying to keep an eye toward the carbon impact. Those two pressures are really gonna come to a head in the academic space. And we’re already seeing it in the student space too. Obviously, the desire for collaborative online international learning coil is so high right now. And the desire to have an internationalized curriculum is something many countries are experimenting with. I think a lot of us would have to recognize during the pandemic that that’s incredibly difficult to do in a fully virtual environment. It really doesn’t feel like that virtual experience on an international education basis can be replaced with an online experience. And so I think we’re really gonna have to answer some of those tough questions in the future. When does it make sense? How much of it can we reasonably budget to do? And then what are the alternatives and are we investing sufficiently in those alternatives to get as close to the real thing as possible?

0:19:06.8 MF: And that raises, of course, the very contentious conversation around offsetting and carbon credits as part of a solution package for an institution. I think it’s general consensus now that especially with Scope 3, but even with Scopes 1 and 2, is going to be impossible to achieve carbon neutrality without some level of offsetting because there are just some mission critical activities that need to produce carbon and need to be part of the calculus there. But given the bad reputation that offsetting has in the market right now, the scrutiny that it’s under not only from our students and faculty, but from newspapers, government agencies, industry leaders. One report I read suggested that only 3% of offsets actually have their intended impact in the carbon reduction. It’s been accusations of greenwashing taking place here.

0:19:55.7 MF: And so I’m hearing a lot of institutions putting energy and time into doing things like creating transparency in the prioritization and processing of their carbon offsets, decisions of tracking carbon offsets over time to ensure that they have their intended impact and reinvesting in them if necessary, or even doing things like trying to ensure that every single one of their carbon emissions is being tracked by hiring carbon analysts to be part of their facilities or strategic planning teams so they can look under every box or around every corner to try to ensure that a full picture is being mapped on and that the places where truly it’s impossible to directly reduce carbon is being evaluated for its effectiveness there.

0:20:44.5 JB: Right. And in the absence of those offsets, you have massive infrastructure requirements and investments needed. You look at a country like France, who is in the process, I think, of banning any short haul flight. I think they define that as something under 250 miles or something that can be achieved in a two and a half hour train ride. Something like that wouldn’t quite work in the US because we just don’t have that infrastructure to get me from somewhere that I would usually have to fly two and a half hours to. And so at a nation level, we really are having to consider these massive reinvestments. And then it boils all the way down to some of those really small challenges that we were talking about, like can this faculty member attend this conference? So let me ask you here, Michael, how do you begin to assess the scope of those challenges, both the necessary and achievable ones, given the size of your campus? I suppose another way to ask you this would be, how do you recommend that our partners go from ideas to prioritization to formalized plans and timelines, given the massive scope of activities that we’re talking about here?

0:21:42.8 MF: I think there’s three initial steps I would recommend. First is don’t reinvent the wheel. Everybody has this problem. This is a universal problem in higher education. And frankly, it’s a universal problem in society. And this is not a place where we need to keep our trade secrets. This isn’t enrolling students or attracting faculty where we want to have a comparative edge. We’re only successful here if we cooperate and all achieve carbon neutrality. There may be some winners who achieve carbon neutrality earlier. Who are able to run to the presses with it, but they’re gonna be few and far between. So learn from each other, look at case studies and best practices. We at EAB have a number of them that we’re happy to share with you. Ask about it at associations or amongst your conference peers or your colleagues that you meet at various events. What are they working on? What are they trying to achieve? How did they get theirs started on their campus? Second is convene various stakeholders and get global buy-in across campus. Again, we tend to think of sustainability either as something that lives exclusively within facilities from the infrastructure and operations side or exclusively within students from an advocacy and policy side.

0:22:53.3 MF: But the institutions that rank highest among those rankings globally for sustainability, like the University of Wollongong in Australia, told us that it was about convening all those stakeholders on a collective sustainability committee to get advantage from all of their different perspectives, look for synergies across the academy and across the university environment and hold each other accountable to that end. It was also harder for people to be as critical of what the institution was working on if they were part bought in from the beginning and were part of the prioritization process there. And then finally, I think a recommendation that we’ve heard from a number of institutions is there is no such thing as too small of a project. In fact, it’s good to have a diversity of projects ranging from relatively small to extremely comprehensive. From those that directly reduce emissions to those that drive the academic mission of the institution forward, to those that have community engagement.

0:23:50.2 MF: That diverse portfolio allows you to continue to show momentum and progress on sustainability. Even when some of the most important initiatives get caught in molasses or stymied because of political change or other pressures that cause us to have to go back to the drawing board. It’s important to constantly show that the university is making progress in a variety of ways, getting that comprehensive buy-in and not allowing the momentum of those efforts to stop at any point. Anything that you would add, Jon, based on the conversations you’ve had?

0:24:23.8 JB: I really like the one there about engaging broader communities in sustainability efforts. And to your earlier point, I think this might be one that’s difficult from the research university perspective. We are very used to conducting research that happens within our campus and is intended to not only have an impact on society, but to move us ahead reputationally. Today, when we talk about sustainability research in particular, we’re increasingly finding these research efforts are collaborative. It’s not just across our university having to engage folks from the arts and humanities, social sciences, as well as the engineers, the chemists, the biologists, the life scientists, and so on. But we’re increasingly working with other universities and sometimes working with other countries. This really is one of those grand unifying moments in my mind where universities can come together. Really pull their work and their expertise in a way that can help them have an outsized impact that they’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, many of the traditional mechanisms are still in place to incentivize to do this work in isolation and in a silo. And so we’re going to see these competing pressures over time. But again, when I look back to our partners in Europe and in the UK, as you mentioned, Michael, our partners in Australia and New Zealand, we really do see the power of these collaborative research agreements around sustainability.

0:25:40.9 JB: And I think this is one of those few things that, as a globe, we can agree on is something that works best when we all work on it together. And so I’m eager to see more initiatives like that push forward. And I think it’s one of those big pieces of advice that I would give to our partners is be open to those opportunities for collaboration with universities or with countries that you might not always think to work with. There’s a lot at stake here. And so I think this really is a good time for us to be pulling together on something like this.

0:26:06.6 MF: And certainly, there are no shortage of other problems that greater coordination, collaboration, and engagement across the university wouldn’t help solve. And so in fact, I think that this broader effort of sustainability may help alleviate or drive forward innovation and progress across a number of different pain points and pressures. And hopefully at the end of it, all of our universities will come out stronger and better for it. Well, Jon, we covered a lot today. Thank you so much for being here on Office Hours with EAB. We look forward to the next conversation.

0:26:38.6 JB: Thank you, Michael.


0:26:46.0 MF: Thank you for listening. We’re taking a Thanksgiving break next week, but we’ll be back with a fresh new episode for you on Tuesday, November 29th. Until then, enjoy your family and thank you for your time.


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