What ACUPCC Reporting Data Can Tell Us about Campus Sustainability

By Cynthia Klein-Banai,  Associate Chancellor for Sustainability, University of Illinois at Chicago

(This article appears in the October, 2010 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

Tying in sustainability to climate action seems quite obvious to most of us.  Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions result from a number of activities that sustainability initiatives traditionally address such as electricity use, energy usage for building heating and cooling, air travel, campus fleet, commuting, and waste disposal.  If the emissions from those activities can be reduced, substituted by more “sustainable” energy sources, or offset then the campus carbon (equivalent) footprint is reduced and we are on our way to being more sustainable.

Is that really all there is to it? Isn’t sustainability about looking at a complex system and implementing processes to make it more environmentally, socially, and economically viable?For my doctoral research at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), I wanted to take a step back from the obvious to see how institutional factors affect GHG emissions. Through the ACUPCC reporting system, we have an increasing wealth of data at our fingertips that likely no sector across the United States has in such a comprehensive fashion. Using the additional required and optional data that the colleges and universities report, I was able to apply research techniques to study a large data set and thereby meet the requirements of my dissertation committee. I was able to further the study of sustainability in higher education while furthering my own education.  I could put to work the concept of using the campus as a learning laboratory or, in this case, using all of our campuses as a laboratory.

First of all, I took the aggregated data and made an improved estimate of the extent of this sector’s impact on GHG emissions. I assumed that the mix of buildings and level of technology and emission characteristics of the ACUPCC reporting institutions in that sample is representative of those institutions that are not reporting. Using the ACUPCC data, I extrapolated that colleges and universities emit about 1.6% of the US total annual emissions.

By examining data from the most recent reporting year for 135 institutions that had reported a broad range of population and size information, along with their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, I developed several models that revealed the following:

The size of an institution as indicated by both population and square footage is the major determinant of emissions. Also, as institutions get larger their Scope 1 and 2 emissions increase at an accelerated rate. This confirms work done by Fletcher[1]. Cooling and heating degree days also had a small impact in the model, with cooling having a higher effect than heating by a factor of four.

The effect of the amount of laboratory space on emissions is ten times higher than that of general space (e.g. classroom, office, general use). We know that laboratory space is energy-intensive compared to most other space but it is generally not a whole order of magnitude higher. Rather this may be due to the nature of a laboratory-oriented research institution that must provide more support services to research that are not required of institutions that deal in little or no research. Also, the mere presence of a medical school on a campus was an indicator of higher emissions.

The effect of residential space is twice that of general space, however residential space is no more energy intensive than general space. It is likely that the residential nature of a campus increases the need for 24/7 support services thereby increasing demand for energy and waste generation.

Commuting emissions were a major factor affecting emissions. The magnitude of commuting emissions was expected to affect the total emissions since there was not an institutional factor available that could be a proxy for actual emissions. This might be the number of parking spaces or permits that could be used instead of actual calculated emissions. This is an area for further research.

Outliers were schools that are primarily distance learning institutions or have large amounts of non-climate-controlled space. Distance learning institutions have a small building footprint compared to their population so this model would predict higher emissions based on population than actually generated. The other scenario was one where the building square footage was high compared to the population due to either unoccupied (that was not being serviced with climate control) or non-climate controlled space.

In conclusion, much of the focus of greenhouse gas emission reductions and sustainability programs within institutions has been focused on the technical side of building energy consumption such as energy efficiency or renewable energy. While these are reasonable approaches, perhaps it is better to start by examining the use of building space to determine if a given space use is essential to the mission of the institution. Are larger (or multiple) offices really necessary for faculty and staff, especially when many telecommute? Is space truly being used for its intended function? Is it necessary that the institution support activities such as facility (and energy) -intensive research? Has vacated space been fully decommissioned and how can it be renovated and reassigned? Before new construction takes place, all existing space options should be fully evaluated including for pertinence to campus mission, ongoing energy consumption, operations, maintenance, and embodied energy.

There was one more finding of interest – there were not a lot of universities with emissions greater than 50,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent in the data set. This work may explain why many large research institutions have yet to make the Commitment. It’s not just a concern about the growth trajectory – their leaders sense that to truly become climate neutral they will have to examine their entire complex system.

Note: Details on the methodology will be presented in the paper “How Institutional Factors are Related to Greenhouse Gas Emissions” at the AASHE conference in room 102 at 9:30 am on October 11 and are also published in the author’s dissertation.

[1] Fetcher, N.: Effects of Climate and Institution Size on Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Colleges and Universities in the United States, Sustainability. 2:6; 362-367: 2009.