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Assessment & Prioritizing Action

Understanding & Assessment

A clear evaluation of your organization’s current situation is the starting point from which a planning team can build a successful action plan for responding to climate change. One of the most powerful aspects of sustainability is that it is inherently forward-looking, providing planners with broad principles from which to consider the future of their community. Using assessment as the basis for envisioning a more sustainable future can be robust tool for building a plan to achieve it.

Beginning with Opportunity

As the impacts of climate change become more apparent, and a greater proportion of people, business, schools, and others adopt measures to reduce emissions and reduce vulnerability, it’s tempting to place a lot of what we do in the category of ‘preventing the negative’. In other words, we want to avoid the worst scenario of climate change (by reducing emissions), and we want to manage our risks as much as we can. Those motivations are valid and even necessary. Our Commitments and Climate Leadership Network are structured and built both to ensure we prevent as much climate change as possible and protect ourselves from harm, but also to perpetually occupy the forefront of innovative solutions, to be proactive and energized, and to anticipate future opportunities to apply thought leadership to action. This is how we build transformative change that is not simply responsive to current crises but looks ahead to the future and travels beyond the boundaries of institutions.

So before planning the action pathway, it’s important to assess two major things: where you want to go, and what you want your assets to be. You can develop preferred future goals, and build capacity while heading towards them. All campuses have more assets than is often realized – primarily in the form of people (faculty, staff, students, trustees, and of course leaders), but also financial capital, community relationships, existing successes, academic strength, infrastructure, and many things that are unique to your campus or community.

Assessing these strengths and opportunities are as critical, perhaps more so than assessing your risks or challenges. So, one of early steps in the planning process could be conducting a kickoff workshop, “charrette,” or even a day-long retreat to:

  • Review your Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitment (if you are a current or new signatory)
  • Engage in a well-designed visioning exercise
  • Conduct a SWOT analysis
  • Ascertain planning team members’ interests, skills, and connections
  • Assign sub-committee and individual responsibilities
  • Identify near-term tasks

If you are signatory to the Resilience Commitment, or the Climate Commitment, then there are specific goals with this component that are discussed in more details in Resilience.

The Vision Exercise

This is a facilitated brainstorming session that asks planning participants to imagine and create a vision of their institution for the future. It shouldn’t be unconstrained or ‘fanciful’, but it should reflect a realistic balance of priorities for a specific time period – 10, 20, or even 30 years in the future. As much as possible, it should also incorporate existing strategic priorities for the institution. For example, is the college intending to be a leader in service learning, or in research? Is the university focusing on having the best graduation rates, or a diverse student body? These can all be benefits and foundations on which to build special focus into the climate action plan. And of course, blending these priorities with where you see your institution being a genuine leader in addressing climate change can give the analysis even more focus.

As you incorporate your strategic vision for climate action into the tactical goals of the institution, it is then necessary to consider what the characteristics are of such an institution. For example, a leading institution in climate action and sustainability might prioritize:

  • Teaching students to understand climate change and to help solve it after they graduate
  • Doing critical research which contributes to climate change solutions
  • Achieving deep cuts in GHG emissions
  • Leading the development of local and regional indicators of resilience
  • Setting an example and inspiring the wider community to become part of the solution

The results of this exercise can be captured in several ways. A day-long exercise might yield a simple vision statement, while something more long-term (a series of events over weeks or months) could facilitate the development of more comprehensive future scenarios for the institution. In any case you can share this vision or these scenarios with a broader set of stakeholders and gather feedback. This can develop engagement, buy-in, and investment in supporting these future directions. This exercise is essential because the planning process itself, let alone developing the outcomes of a resilient and carbon neutral future, requires departing from past practice and “business as usual” and thus imagining a different future. (See more guidance on scenarios and capacity assessment see Climate Resilience).

The SWOT analysis

This is a fairly standard tool for identifying institutional Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, each of which can help or hinder the climate planning process and eventual achievement of climate goals. This is part of understanding your current capacity and assets, and where assets can (and perhaps must) be built along the way. These are the tools that will help you reach your future vision or scenarios.

It’s important that the planning process be viewed as meaningful and effective institutional service as well as an enjoyable experience. The kick-off workshop should set the right tone. It’s important that your school’s president is able to lend full and visible support, and as much as possible engage in the the process.

Resilience and Climate Vulnerability Assessments

There is more information in Climate Resilience about this particular topic, and we introduced a few key elements above, but here we provide just a little more about the nature of assessment with respect to resilience.

Resilience Assessment

As we have mentioned already, understanding your institutional capacity is essential for how you can use that capacity now and build it over time to get to where you want to go. With resilience, we are particularly interested not only in being able to deal with a variety of extreme impacts in the short and long-term, but also being able to adapt over time to continually changing circumstances. We break down a resilience assessment into five different categories:

  • Social
  • Human
  • Natural
  • Financial
  • Physical

There are lots of ways you can break it down, and you may choose to develop your own categories, but we are advocating categories that are intended to be able to touch all aspects of a variety of different campus and community situations. In other words, not only can these be helpful for holistically assessing each individual campus, but they will give us a more coherent way to perform regional and national assessments about what kinds of capacity people are developing.

Whether you choose to do an in-depth, multi-stakeholder process, or whether you start with a simple workshop on campus, breaking down your assets into these five categories should help you determine what strengths and opportunities you have, and of course, also where your gaps are. Giving some thought to how these assessments should be measured and the indicators that will be used to track progress over time, will be important for creating a climate action plan. Some examples of specific capacity indicators within each of these categories are available in Climate Resilience and how to define these indicators are found in the Measuring Progress chapter.

Exposure and Vulnerability

In addition to understanding the strengths you can build upon, you also will need to understand your likely impacts and vulnerability in order to increase resilience to those impacts. Many resilience efforts begin with a vulnerability analysis, and as you can already see, we don’t advocate that – we advocate with understanding where you want to go (your institutional and local vision), your strength and capacity, and then evaluate the risks that you will face along the way. In practice, you will already intuitively know some of the impacts you face (droughts, earthquakes, flooding, snow impacts, hurricanes, coastal storm surge etc), but it’s important that you formally recognize not only what your current and likely exposure to extremes is, but your current and future vulnerability to those extremes.

Those two terms, ‘exposure’ and ‘vulnerability’, are slightly different. Your exposure captures the likelihood that certain extreme events will occur, and your vulnerability is the likelihood that the events will negatively impact you. For example, if you are likely to have a 3-foot snowfall every week in the winter, your exposure to an extreme snowfall is high, but if all your transportation network is underground, then your vulnerability to those events is low, and you may not need to develop further resilience.

Understanding your exposure to a changing climate is, in some ways, easier than understanding your current and likely vulnerability to it. Second Nature provides access to climate information (current climate and future projections) for each region of the country, using information from the U.S. National Climate Assessment. This should enable you to gauge your exposure the kinds of trends and extremes you might face. Understanding your vulnerability, on the other hand, may involve at least two steps: What has impacted you before, and how is your capacity changing?

For example, in September 2004, the remnants of two hurricanes passed across the southern Appalachian area of North Carolina within about a week of each other. It’s a mountainous region and rainfall totals were well over 20 inches for the two events combined in some locations. Much of the rain also fell in two short (24 hour) bursts. Flooding occurred throughout the Western NC area and caused over $200m in damage in just two weeks. Eleven people were killed, 140 homes were destroyed, and over 15,000 additional homes were damaged. An additional notable impact was that the flood water undermined a delivery pipe from one of the major reservoirs supplying Asheville and a large segment of the city was without drinking water for more than three days (this included several college campuses). The likelihood of such an event is low. In other words, there isn’t a high exposure to back-to-back hurricanes across the mountains, but the vulnerability was clearly very high.

The lessons from that event have led to changes in managing the small river that flows through the city of Asheville, decreasing flood likelihood in the future (building physical capital, and managing natural capital), many of those business and homeowners who were flooded and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, now have flood insurance (increasing financial capital), almost everyone who endured the event, and many who are new to town know more information about flooding potential  because of regular articles, expert-led workshops, and communication about the event (increased human capital) and so on. So the vulnerability now is not the same as it was in 2004. This can only be gauged by looking at your resilience capacity then and now.

Nonetheless, it only takes about 4 or 5 inches of rain to create landslides in many of the mountain areas in the region, and vulnerability to those events is still generally high (not much change to capacity). Additionally those events have a higher probability now, and will increase in likelihood over the next few decades. So, in assessing your vulnerability, you can learn from the impacts of previous events, look at the likelihood of similar events in the future, and look at how capacity has changed and should continue to evolve.

Evaluating the Campus Energy System

The basic task involved in evaluating energy use is to do a Greenhouse Gas (GHG) inventory. The specifics of how to conduct this can be found in Measuring Progress, but here we discuss a little more about the development of a more comprehensive assessment, not just of your baseline emissions, but the sort of energy system and opportunities you have.

The first level of assessment will be understanding the sources of your emissions. These sources are commonly referred to as “scopes” and are used to qualify the types of emissions (discussed in detail in Measuring Progress) and help determine the types of interventions necessary to reduce them. If the highest source of emissions come from scope 1 emissions (generally on-campus energy use), most interventions will involve using energy more efficiently in campus operations or using lower-carbon energy sources.

If the majority of emissions are scope 2 (purchased energy such as electricity), the types of intervention necessary will likely be different. Many campuses do not have much control over how electricity is generated by their regional utility, so to reduce these emissions you again must look to conservation and efficiency with the goal of lowering the amount of off-campus energy purchased. You can also look for other sources of energy. Can electricity be purchased from a less carbon intense utility or through Renewable Energy Credits (RECs)? Could more energy be generated on-campus through lower-carbon methods? As a large campus, you may be a dominant consumer of electricity in your state or may have the ability to influence decision-making in the electric power sector of your region. You may be part of an investor owned utility or a rural electricity cooperative. These options are important to understand as you consider effective emissions reduction strategies.

Scope 3 emissions (generally emissions from outsourced or induced activities) will require a greater focus on behavioral change within your campus community or with your contracted vendors. These types of interventions will likely be more reliant on education, incentives, policy changes, and alterations in the requirements for contractors.

The largest sources today are not necessarily those of the future. How will your campus development impact this? Is there a large building phase taking place with many new buildings under construction? Are you moving away from a commuter school model to a more residential educational style or vice versa? Are campus buildings outdated and in need of significant upgrades? Are there many historical buildings that were designed and constructed before mechanical building systems were common? Is your state undergoing a major energy transition due to market forces or regulation such as Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS)? How will these trends impact the campus?

Thinking about these aspects of the campus energy system will help lay the groundwork for planning a more sustainable more resilient energy system for the long-term.

Knowing What to Change: How to Prioritize Action

One of the more overwhelming elements for most climate action planning processes is deciding what to do first. Clearly, not everything can begin at once, and trying to get a lot of action going at the same time can lead to frustration, poor coordination, and lower likelihood of success. As with any project, getting some smaller successful efforts under way first, can build more momentum and induce further participation than starting too big.

One way to prioritize action is thinking about what would have the greatest and/or shortest return for the least amount of initial investment. For example, switching out light bulbs from incandescent to LED lights can yield 25%+ savings each year and will last much longer than the previous lightbulbs, reducing facilities costs. That can be a large cost savings on many campuses (sometimes in excess of $1m), and costs little up-front.

Returns on investment are often thought of strictly in financial terms, but there could be other non-financial benefits to your investment that can help you prioritize action. Some of these aspects to consider could be:

  • Academic and research impacts
  • Public relations value
  • Organizational capacity to undertake and manage the project
  • Alignment with campus capital development plan, strategic, and other plans
  • Stakeholder support and enthusiasm

Thinking about Return On Investment (ROI), carbon reductions, energy use intensity reductions, risk, strategic alignment, educational value/alignment with mission etc. are all good methods for prioritizing decision making-actions. Carbon Management & Greenhouse Gas Mitigation and Financing chapters discuss these topics in more detail.

Tangible Action & Early Success

As described above, there are a number of tangible actions that can be taken very quickly to get some successes under your belt and the whole program of action moving forward. Not all of these are small, but most offer either rapid ROI (financially, or socially for the campus), and/or ‘ease’ of buy-in and engagement, and clear metrics for success. Second Nature has put together a list and some associated resources to help you uncover some good ideas for your campus, see Tangible Actions & Early Successes.

Some of these ideas focus on:

  • changes to policy (e.g. institute an energy-efficient appliance purchasing policy requiring ENERGY STAR certified products in all areas for which such a rating exists),
  • reaching specific goals (e.g. within one year begin purchasing or producing at least 15% of your institution’s electricity consumption from renewable sources)
  • communications and engagement (e.g. begin a campaign to encourage increased use of public transportation by faculty and students).

Visit Tangible Actions & Early Successes to get some good ideas, and we will be updating the list at least every year, so check back. If you have a good idea that you don’t see listed, send us a note and there’s a good chance we’ll add it in the next round of additions, with credit to your institution. innovation@secondnature.org

Strategic Framework: Defining Objectives & Setting Goals

One of the most powerful results of becoming a signatory of the Commitments is that they provide you with a clearly defined framework within which to undertake sustainability planning and action. In many ways, the process of creating a shared vision of sustainability is more vital to the long-term development of a positive and sustainable global future than any individual “green” projects a campus might undertake. Sustainability challenges are inherently complex and dynamic. Creating a sustainable campus will require a multi-generational effort and necessitate the support and contribution of the entire community, beyond the efforts of an individual sustainability advocate or planning team. Without a clear sustainability objective and well-defined goals or targets, small-scale efforts tend to be overwhelmed by the myriad of decisions made by the dozens of decision-makers throughout the organization over the course of decades of operations. Many efforts last only as long as individual leaders remain active. At its core, the Commitments are about initiating a bold transformation of the internal culture and decision-making framework of your institution.

Strategic Objectives & Tactical Goals

Defining a central objective for institutional sustainability is key for developing inclusive, transparent, easily communicated implementation planning. If all your stakeholders are aware of the objectives, understand their importance, and know how their own role in the organization contributes to achieving the objective, plans are much more likely to succeed.

Two broad categories of targets help create the kind of institutional vision required for successful implementation:

  • strategic objectives (values)
  • tactical goals (targets)

At the highest level, strategic objectives should make clear how sustainability relates to the overall mission of the institution. These can be very broad, aspirational statements of purpose, such as “our institution strives to create a sustainable community” or “graduates of our institution will be prepared to meet the sustainability challenges of the future”. These type of statements may sound impractical or difficult to achieve, but they play the important role of unifying the organization in a common purpose. It is no longer the mission of only the sustainability coordinator or planning team to achieve these objectives, but the charge of every member of the organization.

There is great opportunity to link these type of overall sustainability objectives directly to your existing mission or institutional charge. For example, as a state sponsored institution you may be charged with meeting the educational needs of the populace of their state, or you might be affiliated with a particular religious denomination and have a mission of educating students according to the principles of that tradition. Clearly defining and communicating how sustainability principles related to the broad charges of your institution help stakeholders understand the importance of integrating sustainability into the organizational fabric.

In many cases, your organization already has or is creating strategic or academic plans that include a range of similarly broad objectives for the campus. Adding a sustainability-related objective or articulating how existing objectives related to sustainability provides a great opportunity for expressing the centrality of sustainability in the organization. Embedding sustainability principles into these types of plans ensures that future planning and implementation based on these objectives will include sustainability at the highest level.     

Importance of Targets

To translate broad principles into direct action, tactical goals need to be created. These are the types of goals required under the Commitments – with specific, measurable targets for achieving success for a particular indicator such as carbon emissions or specific, measurable milestones for meeting progress toward resilience. Each of these tactical goals has three aspects which need to be defined:

  1. The indicator that needs to be measured. You need to decide which indicators would be used represent progress toward the objective. In the case of carbon neutrality, the indicator is clear: annual greenhouse gas emissions. For other objectives, a choice of indicator may be less clear. For example, if the objective were to ensure students understood basic sustainability principles, a viable indicator might be the number of students who passed a general education course on sustainability.
  2. The indicators need to have an associated target level. This could be an absolute target (e.g., reduce annual net carbon emissions to zero = carbon neutrality), or a percentage change compared to a baseline (e.g., a 10% increase in recycling compared to the 2010 recycling rate).
  3. And finally, the goal would need a date by which the target would be achieved.

Setting specific, measurable goals, allows progress toward a strategic objective to be tracked and transparently reported to members of your organization and other stakeholders. Such tracking provides accountability to the members of your organization charged with meeting the goals and creates a feedback mechanism for the institution to gauge how well implementation is proceeding. It allows your institution to ask key questions such as: “if we continue at the present rate will we meet our target?” or “is the current level of investment in this are producing significant results?”

Interim Versus Long-term Targets

It can take an institution many decades to achieve carbon neutrality and to increase resilience substantially. For example, current scientific understanding of climate change tells us that global emissions level will need to be reduced significantly by mid-century in order to stabilize the climate and avoid the most catastrophic effects. Based on this information, many institutions have set targets centered on the year 2050. This kind of long-range planning is critical in implementing the Commitments. Your institution makes many decisions that have long-term impacts: campus buildings are typically expected to last 50 years without major restoration and 100 years before significant demolition, the campus power plant or heating system will operate for 40 or more years. In the absence of long-term targets, major planning decisions that map out the upgrades or changes to these systems could be made without considering their impact on the sustainability objectives of your organization. Long-term targets help place major infrastructure decisions in the context of a changing climate.

Most organizations do not make typical operational decisions on 40 year time spans, however. Campus master plans often cover a 10 year period, or the campus might operate on a 5-year budget cycle. Synchronizing interim targets with these cycles provides a very tangible way for progress towards the target to be achieved. It allows planners to ask key questions like “which energy efficiency projects will be completed as part of our current master plan?” or “what is the projected budget for investment in new energy sources this cycle?”. Tying sustainability implementation to the overall operation and administration of an organization in this way is another key example of how sustainability can be institutionalized and the culture of an organization shifted to a more sustainable footing.

The outcome of your assessment should be some clearly defined guiding principles and objectives for achieving your vision of what sustainability means to your institution. Defining a clear vision of the sustainable future of your organization becomes the basis for developing indicators to track your progress towards that vision and for creating a climate action plan to bring you there. Beginning with an assessment of the institutions current resources, particularly the strengths and opportunities, to understand which areas are priorities for action and working toward developing practical, measurable actions to achieve them.