Introduction to Sustainability Planning and Climate Action

From Leadership to Action

The model of change that Second Nature supports is that strong commitments by leaders in the higher education sector yield big changes at multiple levels – not only in the institution that those leaders manage, but in the sector at large, and even beyond. And it’s important that in supporting this model, a successful mechanism for demonstrating that leadership and driving those changes exist.

The commitments that SN has developed (collaboratively with the community) require strong leadership,tangible outcomes, and the ability to track progress. It is imperative that as presidents and chancellors sign these commitments, that they also put in place the structures and benchmarks that determine  success; the commitments guide presidents, sustainability directors, and others on campus in how to do this. By beginning the process with the creation of internal structures (such as a sustainability committee, and a sustainability-focused staff or leadership position), it drives accountability and planning in sustainability to become part of the whole institution’s approach. Each step of the commitment is designed around helping to make progress in the most efficient and effective manner. Equally important is the role of ‘reporting’ or evaluation. While we don’t want to fall into the trap of reporting for its own sake and making the work more about compliance than about creativity, being able to measure progress and celebrate success locally as well as nationally is a critical piece of the puzzle of translating commitment and leadership to action. And as we transition to a mode of dynamic and evaluative assessment (rather than simply reporting), we will be trying to support more innovative progress. More information about reporting can be found in the Commitments Implementation Guide and in the Measuring Progress section.

Finally, an important element of success in translating leadership to action is about supporting the leaders. Second Nature supports convenings of leaders through several different avenues. For example, we host major climate leadership summits with an agenda designed around presidents and chancellors but also facilitating and encouraging team attendance from each school. We also provide the opportunity for higher education leaders to participate in our steering committee and associated working groups and sub-committees. Through these committees, presidents can directly engage in shaping the direction of the network and its impact.Finally, there are numerous regional and topical workshops, webinars, and other convenings throughout a typical year, designed to engage and inform. These are not only targeted at the institutional heads, but also leaders in the sustainability positions, staff and faculty.

Transformative Change

We live in an era of unprecedented change. The climate and biosphere are undergoing significant transformations. Some scientists have referred to this time of global change as the Anthropocene era, recognizing that human civilization for the first time is acting on a scale that previously only geologic forces could affect.

These changes are pervasive, they impact the natural and human systems of our world in a way that is greater than previous challenges. They are also intertwined in all aspects of our economies, rather than confined to the negative consequences of one industry or technology. And they raise the possibility of irreversible damage if action is taken too late or too slowly.

Since 2006, Second Nature has supported bold commitments from leaders in higher education to address the most pressing issues of global sustainability. Demonstrated success in driving change within the higher education sector has broad impacts beyond the campus. This sector can and should be the bed of innovation that will drive the next century; it is the place where future leaders will be shaped and educated. Such commitments catalyze action and focus activity in ways that go beyond ordinary goals.

With unprecedented rates and magnitudes of change and we need to take an integrated, systems approach to both driving down the source of the problem (GHGs), and managing the consequences in ways that continue to support and design thriving communities.

Over the last several decades, sustainability has evolved from a fringe, environmental-focused concern to a mainstream priority across all sectors – corporate, government, education and others. It also incorporates the understanding that social and economic considerations cannot be divorced from environmental concerns. Innovation around developing and operationalizing sustainable solutions is now widespread – from data-driven building management, to certification and standards, to renewable energy purchasing, green space development, parking solutions and many, many more.

New Opportunities

In recent years, it has also become increasingly clear that the degree of climate change impact we can expect (in frequency of events and magnitude of change) is becoming greater and therefore our need to manage those impacts is also greater. The potential for some impacts to exceed our management capacity is also increasing, and so our imperative to moderate as much of the cause of climate change as possible, as quickly as possible, is therefore also even stronger. Fortunately, as we have seen with sustainability as a whole, the opportunities for innovative, smart, leading edge solutions has never been greater.

Technology & Data

It was less than a decade ago (2007) that the iPhone entered the market and mobile accessibility and data generation became part of our everyday experience. Touch screens – allowing users to explore interactive data and dashboards – are now the norm in many buildings and campuses, and digital connectedness offers great opportunity to understand and leverage the power of crowds (students!) and communities.

There are already a multitude of new approaches that are using evolving technology, yet the rapidly changing digital landscape is a continuing source of opportunity for smarter and more widespread solutions. As higher education predominantly works with the generation most attuned to these opportunities, the potential for institutions (and the sector as a whole) to be at the forefront of new solutions, while also facilitating inspiring, challenging, and even fun academic investigations is uniquely available to higher education.

New Work Environments

Some students are entering workplaces that are vastly different than even a decade ago and the way in which Americans engage in seeking, commuting to, and doing work is in rapid flux. This is also being reflected in the way that students wish to learn and engage. More and more learning and work is being done online and participation in team projects or in the workforce can and does occur remotely. This represents challenges for higher education of course, but also great opportunity to use sustainability and climate action to prepare students differently (and better!) for the workplaces they will enter. It also offers options to conduct campus operations even more sustainably.  For example, more than ever before, workers are electing to choose employment that offers flexible work arrangements, remote work options, and online participation in team projects. Higher education can be at the forefront of examining the environmental, social, and economic implications of this new trend, even while facilitating similar study environments for students and lowering reliance on energy-intensive physical infrastructure to deliver some elements of education.

Renewable Energy

The average cost of solar energy in the U.S. fell by around 68% between 2010 and 2015 according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA 2015). Technological advances as well as scaled production have radically increased the potential for investment in solar energy. Additionally, there are more companies able to assist in developing and installing solar energy at a variety of scales, the purchasing options are greater than ever before, and the opportunities to build and use large-scale renewables are now clear. Even in areas where coal has long been the dominant and cheapest fuel (e.g. parts of the Southeastern United States), solar is now competitive, and likely to become even more so according to the EIA. In order to take advantage of this trend, some campuses are working together to purchase renewable energy at scale (see box) and others are seeing rapid payoff from even small scale, local installations.

Global to Local

A few decades ago, the world was discussing globalization, and of course it’s absolutely an essential and dominant part of the modern economy and our approach to trade, resource management, manufacturing, and of course environmental policy-making. Recently however, there has been a marked shift back to acting and engaging locally. From the local food movement, to small business development, to resilience initiatives, there is increasing awareness and action around the power of community and building on the uniqueness of place and local characteristics. Especially with respect to climate adaptation and resilience, this trend offers great opportunity to connect the campus with local communities and enhance the initiatives that each might otherwise be beginning separately. Blending campus and community planning around systems such as food, water, health, and transportation can yield better and more powerful results. And because communities are more engaged in these issues than ever before, it represents a great leadership and partnership opportunity for higher education and for student engagement and service. At the same time, learning and action at the local scale can translate back (especially through organizations such as Second Nature, and efforts such as the US National Climate Assessment) to impact national and international understanding.


In previous decades, it was assumed that once a certain amount of effort had gone into efficiency measures that those carbon reduction gains were essentially gone and the focus would have to shift away from efficiency and focus more on investment in renewable sources or carbon trading (for example) or other solutions. However, rates of technological change  and development of new materials have proven that there are almost always new efficiency gains to be made for relatively little cost and relatively rapid payoff. For example, the change from incandescent to CFL lightbulbs saved many campuses millions of dollars and paid off in less than a year. But since then, the shift to LED technology has allowed even further rapid-payoff savings for campuses. Weatherization options, building materials, grass substitutes, building automation and other innovations are constantly offering new opportunities to keep driving down emissions and saving money. See more discussion of this in the opportunities and data section of the Guide

An Innovative Economy

In short, new opportunities are always emerging to support efficient and effective investment in climate action and sustainability, and higher education has a particularly important role in not just keeping up but continuing to drive innovation and lead the creation of opportunity. Higher education is uniquely positioned to take advantage of a huge pool of creative and plugged-in people, of incorporating new (and experimental) solutions at a manageable scale, of acting locally, but having national and international impact, and of changing the culture and opportunity for an entire generation of citizens.

We would like to hear from you with what you think are the major new opportunities in the U.S. around climate-related implementation and sustainability. We will post many of these on our blog and continue to update this guide. Think Big! : [email protected]

Why Carbon Neutrality?

By signing the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments, your institution has pledged to create a climate action plan that includes “a target date for achieving carbon neutrality as soon as possible’. The goal of Carbon neutrality – or net-zero greenhouse gas emissions – is intended to dramatically reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the current levels of approximately 400 ppm (pre-industrial levels were approximately 280 ppm).

The imperative for carbon reduction is urgent — In order to limit the global mean temperature increase over historical norms to about 2 degrees Celsius (the temperature at which there is a high probability of catastrophic impacts), global emissions need to be reduced approximately 40-70% below 2010 levels by 2050, with CO2 emissions peaking soon (IPCC, 2014).

Carbon neutrality also offers shared vision. While strategic planning must work within the current constraints (financial or otherwise), it must also set a compelling vision of the ultimate goal – a “goal that is worthy of commitment.”  An aggressive target date for carbon neutrality can spur creativity, innovation, and intellectual curiosity. It provides a common aspiration, which helps foster alignment so that the many disparate parts of a large organization can work together toward the same goal, even when complexity and size makes centralized coordination of such efforts difficult. And institutions are encouraged to be flexible and adaptable – given the complexity of the challenge of achieving carbon neutrality, plans can and should be designed to be iterative and adaptable. We cannot know with certainty what the world will be like 20 or even 5 years from now. New laws, discoveries, technologies and cultural shifts will impact the best-laid plans. Target dates for carbon neutrality and interim goals can be adjusted as circumstances change. The Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments allow for plans to be updated at any time (at least every 5 years), and the annual evaluation reports provide a regular mechanism for making such changes.

Carbon neutrality also provides a core strategic imperative – climate action and sustainability more broadly is central to higher education’s mission in the 21st century. Higher education cannot fulfill its obligation to support a thriving civil society if that society is not sustainable.

Why Resilience?

At the same time as reducing the cause of dangerous climate change, it is now clear that the impacts of change are being felt in all regions of the Globe. From Superstorm Sandy to the droughts in the Southwest, wildfires, storm surges, record rain and snowfall, it is evident that extreme events in the U.S. are causing greater destruction. The events are also costing us in terms of actual lives and dollars as well as in disruption to progress (deferred cost). Campuses are already and will continue to face direct impacts from climate-related extreme events and many schools are already taking steps to increase tolerance to extremes such as drought, flooding or storms. However, we also have an opportunity to engage not just in a protection-focused mentality, allowing us to recover from impact, but also in a much more proactive and community-focused approach that allows us to invest and flourish in the face of change.

As part of a collaborative process, Second Nature has developed a resilience commitment that can complement the investment already being made in carbon neutrality. For example, the resilience work will include climate adaptation-specific goals (e.g., providing reliable access to power during increasing heat waves, or storms), while also supporting carbon neutrality goals (implementing low or no carbon-emitting solutions for those reliable power sources), and it will equally importantly focus on building community capacity to deal with a constantly changing climate, including changing extremes.

Higher education institutions are often at the heart of a community and provide expertise, potential future workforce, engaged young people, space for community events and other advantages. But large institutions also use community resources – water, power, transportation systems, and can either contribute to the diversity or the inequity of social access to education, training, and opportunity, for example. In terms of resilience, it is critical that colleges and universities are working hand in hand with their community partners in examining resilience, increasing it, measuring progress towards shared goals, and leading smart and innovative solutions, even as we deal with climate disruptions and impacts along the way.

More about Resilience.

Why Integrated Planning?

Let’s face it, colleges and universities have a lot of plans; strategic visions, campus master plans, academic plans, development goals, utility master plans, transportation master plans, and more. Taking sustainability action often results in campuses adding separate sustainability plans (generally covering the social aspects of sustainability, food, water, the internal organization of the sustainability office, etc.), climate action plans (often focused solely on carbon mitigation or carbon neutrality), and resilience plans to these existing planning efforts.

The creation of disparate plans oftens results in lack of awareness and participation in the planning process and outcomes. Plans are often shelved once created and rarely reviewed or updated as implementation progress (if they are implemented at all).

The most effective plans seek a balance between integration and uniqueness. On the one hand, it is an excellent goal to embed sustainability principles into existing planning mechanisms (and this is often highly effective in shifting the culture of an institution in a more sustainable direction). The risk, however, is that these other plans are too broad to include the focused attention on the more complex sustainability planning goals. Finding this balance for the unique qualities of an institution is one of the most difficult aspects sustainability planners face.

Sustainability (and sustainable thinking and planning) is about accounting for the complex and integrated nature of the variety of natural and human systems that maintain a thriving world. Isolating individual issues all too often results in actions that degrade overall sustainability while seeking to address a single aspect of it. Classic examples include the push for first-generation biofuels to address the need to develop carbon-free liquid fuels. These, processes ended up using more energy (typically fossil fuel-based) to produce the biofuel than was displaced. Seeking to reduce climate vulnerability through the use of highly inefficient back-up generators is another typical situation that can result from planning in isolation.

The goal of the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments is to address the challenge of climate change holistically by transforming the way higher-education operates and educates. Integrated planning to avoid the most serious effects of climate change while simultaneously responding to the already occurring and anticipated impacts is essential for achieving this goal.

References and Additional Resources

Energy Information Administration (2015) Annual Energy Outlook:

IPCC, 2014: Summary for Policymakers, In: Climate Change 2014, Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.:


Second Nature would like to graciously thank all of the contributors and reviewers of this documentation and for the support and contributions all of our peers and colleagues throughout the Second Nature network over the 10 years of learning and practice that went into the creation of this guide.

Current Guidance

Sustainability Planning & Climate Action Guide

Anne Waple, Ph.D, Vice-President and Chief Innovation Officer, Second Nature

Brett Pasinella, MA, LEED Green Associate, Senior Manager of Innovative Services, Second Nature


Previous Guidance

Cool Campus! A How-To Guide for College and University Climate Action Planning

Copyright © 2009 Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education

Author: Walter Simpson, CEM, LEED AP

Editors: Niles Barnes, Julian Dautremont-Smith, Toni Nelson, Brittany Zwicker

Design: Jon Hehir

Implementation Guide Version 2.1, 2012

Sarah Brylinsky, Program Associate, Second Nature

Steve Muzzy, Senior Associate, Second Nature

Cherie Peacock, Sustainability Coordinator, University of Montana

Linda Petee, Sustainability & Risk Management Coordinator, Delta College

John Pumilio, Director of Sustainability, Colgate University

Jesse Pyles, Sustainability Coordinator, Unity College

Matt Williams, Program Manager, Office of Sustainability, Auburn University

Thomas Williams, Sustainability Coordinator, Scottsdale Community College

Implementation Guide version 1.1, 2009

Principal Author: Julian Dautremont-Smith, Associate Director, AASHE

Contributing Authors: Dr. Anthony D. Cortese, President, Second Nature; Georges Dyer, Senior Fellow, Second Nature; Judy Walton, Director of Strategic Initiatives, AASHE

Carbon Markets and Offsets

The following members of Second Nature’s Offset Technical Advisory Group worked over the 2015-2016 academic year to contribute to the Carbon Markets & Offsets section of this guidance and to the many discussions that led to its development. Some sections of the Carbon Markets & Offsets guidance were revised and updated from the previous Second Nature publications including Investing in Carbon Offsets: Guidelines for ACUPCC Institutions, 2008. The Technical Advisory Group would like to acknowledge and thank the authors of those publications.

Charles Adair Program Manager, Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative Duke University
Heather Adelman Assistant Director The Oberlin Project
Jenn Andrews Associate Director, Sustainability Institute University of New Hampshire
TIm Carter President Second Nature
Tani Colbert-Sangre Consultant The Oberlin Project
Sally DeLeon Sustainability Project Manager University of Maryland
Laura Draucker Director of Sustainability Amherst College
Clara Changxin Fang Communications Manager EarthDeedsL3C
Arthur Frazier Director, Facilities Management & Services Spelman College
Alex French Sustainability Coordinator Clarkson University
Daniel Greenberg Founder & CEO EarthDeedsL3C
Meghan Haley-Quigley Sustainability Coordinator Union College
Corey Hawkey Sustainability Manager Arizona State University
Sean Hayes Executive Director The Oberlin Project
Bob Koester Director, Center for Energy Research/Education/Service Ball State
Linda Kogan Director, Office of Sustainability University of Colorado-Colorado Springs
Ben McCall Associate Director for Campus Sustainability University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Deborah McGrath Professor of Biology Sewanee University
Cullen Naumoff Director of Sustainable Enterprise The Oberlin Project
Quint Newcomer Director & Resident Scientist University of Georgia, Costa Rica
Brett Pasinella Senior Manager of Innovative Services Second Nature
John Pumilio Director of Sustainability Colgate University
Mark Stewart Senior Project Manager, Office of Sustainability University of Maryland
Anne Waple VP & CIO Second Nature
Ruby Woodside Carbon Credit & Purchasing Program Intern Second Nature