sustainability schools

Universities Lead Battle to Reverse Climate Change



Two years ago, at the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, 193 member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals—17 distinct goals designed to eradicate poverty, address climate change, and build peaceful, inclusive societies for all by 2030. With the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Agreement and the recent record-breaking hurricane damage this year, climate change and sustainability will be a hot topic this week at the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly.

In July this year, the UN issued a report noting that progress to date “is insufficient to fully meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets by 2030.” It also added a warning: “Time is therefore of the essence.” The report went on to note that in 2016, planetary warming set a record temperature of about 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period, and the extent of global sea ice fell to the second lowest on record.   

But it is not all doom and gloom. While the world is certainly heating up, so are the efforts taking place at university campuses to tackle climate change and make the world more sustainable. If you want to see the progress on reversing climate change and making the world more sustainable, look at our universities where sustainability advancements are made every day.

In this article, we highlight the key areas in which universities are leading the battle to reverse climate change—from their unwavering commitment, to the cutting-edge research that will help us win this battle.

Commitment by Universities to Meet SDGs

“There is no ‘Plan B’ because we do not have a ‘Planet B’” is an oft-repeated statement by Ban Ki-moon, the eighth UN Secretary-General. This is the view held by many leaders at university campuses around the world today.

Two decades ago, the title of “Campus Sustainability Officer” or “Director of Sustainability,” was unheard of. That’s not the case today when practically every university has one. Some universities have full departments, and many have full-on degree programs around sustainability. So, it was no surprise that when President Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a large group of university leaders in the U.S. promptly signed a “We Are Still In” proclamation.

This is what Susan Herbst, president of the University of Connecticut, had to say about the role of universities in this fight. The decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement does not mean that we as a university should abdicate our own responsibility to do what we believe is best for our state, the nation, and the world with respect to our environment,” she said. “We will steadfastly continue to do our part in contributing to global efforts to address climate change.”

Separately, some universities also got together to affirm their intention to stand by the Paris Agreement. Johns Hopkins, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, MIT, Penn, Stanford, and Yale signed a separate pact to strengthen their resolve to limit carbon emissions.

A statement signed by the presidents of all 12 universities listed above reads: “As institutions of higher education, we remain committed to a broad-based global agreement on climate change and will do our part to ensure the United States can meet its contribution.”

Universities pledging to help tackle climate change is not a recent phenomenon. Hundreds of universities had previously committed to using only 100 percent renewable energy on campus and became signatories to the Climate Leadership Commitment, which was spearheaded by Environment America and the Student Public Interest Research Groups to achieve carbon neutrality.  

Sustainable Infrastructure

Universities around the world are making sustainable energy a priority in their campus infrastructure, so new projects are almost always being built with sustainability in mind. These environmental initiatives are reducing energy costs, countering carbon emissions, and making a visible commitment to sustainability evident to all.

Here are some recent examples of sustainable infrastructure:

  • As part of its $19.6 million project to become energy self-sufficient, Eastern Michigan University (EMU) recently installed an energy-efficient turbine to its heating plant, making EMU practically self-sufficient in production of heat and electricity on campus. EMU expects that the unit will result in reducing annual campus CO2 emissions by an estimated 21,305 tons and nitrogen oxides by 112 tons. Environmentalism is a priority at EMU, which will continue its efforts to fight for environmental sustainability. “We are always on the lookout for opportunities which present themselves to improve operational efficiencies and to make EMU even ‘Greener’,” said Bilal Sarsour, director of facilities maintenance at EMU.
  • Rhode Island College (RIC) has converted all of its dormitories to LED lighting (saving 517,308 kilowatt hours) and installed street lamps topped with solar panels and a wind turbine. During the day, the lamps convert sunlight and wind into electricity, which is then stored in the individual lamps’ batteries. During the night, the lamps illuminate the campus, powered entirely by the energy they stored up during the day. “The OMNI LED system is a perfect example of Rhode Island College’s commitment to sustainability, using new and groundbreaking technology in a very practical way,” James Murphy, sustainability coordinator at RIC, said.
  • University of Illinois is reaping the benefit of student-funded solar farm consisting of 18,867 photovoltaic panels, which are projected to generate energy for the next 40 years. “The Solar Farm was the fifth major completed solar energy project on campus and first utility-scale installation,” said Morgan Johnston, director of sustainability for the university’s Facilities & Services. Campus sustainability efforts don’t stop there. “The next step in our move toward clean energy is the new ten-year Wind Power Purchase Agreement the university signed with Rail Splitter Wind Farm, LLC.,” she added. “Also, the university is continuing to incorporate building-specific solar installations into projects for research facilities and residence halls as part of major renovations or new construction.”
  • Essex Business School, located at the University of Essex in Colchester, UK, recently opened its first zero-carbon school building in the UK. The focus of the building is a winter garden with an “Eden-like dome” that gives the building its own micro-climate. The building has a rainwater pond that recycles water for use in plumbing. The building is so energy-efficient that it saves more than one ton of carbon every day.
  • Okanagan College has installed the second largest solar panel system in British Columbia, Canada. As a result, Okanagan College has been able to reduce its energy consumption per square meter by 32.2 percent from 2007 to 2013. The college has set a goal of being energy net zero by 2025.

These are just a few of the many examples of the recent sustainable infrastructure projects at different campuses. The switch to 100 percent renewable energy is really taking off and not a moment too soon, with universities playing a key role in addressing “our largest environmental challenges,” according to Bronte Payne, Environment America’s Clean Energy Associate, in a recent interview with TUN.  “Now, more than ever, we need leadership,” she added. “Which is why we are counting on the higher education community to lead, by committing to a rapid shift to clean energy.”

Campus Recycling

A big part of reversing climate change is recycling. The more we recycle, the less energy is consumed in making new things that contribute directly to climate change. This is an area where universities have made dramatic changes and continue to improve upon, so much so that it would behoove local governments to learn from local universities around them how best to improve their own programs.

Here are some examples of recycling efforts made by universities:

  • Making Recycling a Competitive Sport.  “RecycleMania” is a green movement that started in 2001, whereby colleges compete against each other in an effort to promote recycling and waste reduction. During the competition, the participating schools report on their weekly recycling/trash volumes, and are ranked in various categories based on their recycling efforts. Since RecycleMania’s inception, millions of students from over 1,000 universities have recycled and composted roughly 730 million pounds of material, thereby preventing the release of nearly 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (equivalent to removing 7 million cars from the road for one year).
  • Results Happen Quickly.  Unity College, which prides itself on being America’s Environmental College, was recently able to demonstrate how fast results can occur with a focused effort. The college’s efforts to have zero waste in its dining and catering facilities were recently rewarded by the National Association of College and University Food Services. Unity College was able to achieve remarkable results in just 8 months, which highlights how quickly organizations can make a difference if they just put their minds to it. “The students, staff, and faculty at Unity College are eager to make a real, positive impact on their world, and I am proud that our Sustainability Team constantly looks for new ways to help our campus community minimize waste,” said Jennifer deHart, chief sustainability officer at Unity College.
  • Personal Environmental Scorecard. Penn State University’s largest campus, University Park, implemented the “PawPrint,” a tool for students to measure their ecological footprint, so they can make better sustainability choices each day. Professor Andrew Lau, who conceived the project, said: “The PawPrint takes the concept of sustainability and shows students how they are doing and what’s possible.” “The PawPrint helps students answer the question: How sustainable is my current way of life?” he added.
  • College Stadiums are Recycling Showcases. Most college stadiums are now on the path to zero waste. For example, Penn State University’s Beaver Stadium, the second largest university stadium in the U.S., partnered with Green Sports Alliance and NatureWorks to make a portion of Beaver Stadium a “zero waste showcase.” The initiative resulted in 95 percent diversion of landfill waste at the first home game in 2013 and 100 percent diversion by the last game. Diversion in 2014 was also 100 percent at each game.   This and similar initiatives are a great way to show a large audience how “zero waste” can be achieved.
  • Moving Day Recycling.  Many universities now have robust move-in/move-out recycling programs. The average university student discards 640 pounds of waste annually, with the bulk of the waste generated during move-out. Two decades ago, most of that would have ended up in a landfill. Fortunately, many universities and their students are making a concerted effort to divert that waste from the landfills. For example, Georgia Tech has had an annual Move-In/Move-Out program in place since 1998.   It now prides itself on keeping 13,000 tons of recyclable material out of the landfills each year.
  • One Man’s trash is Another Man’s Treasure. Temple University recently implemented the Temple Surplus, a program that functions essentially as a central platform for collecting and redistributing all types of equipment, such as office chairs, tables, chairs, shelving, and filing cabinets. Any item that is not recycled for university use is either sold or donated. “Temple’s surplus program is a win-win-win,” said Kathleen Grady, Temple’s director of sustainability. “The university is able to promote reuse, reduce waste and the associated hauling costs, and generate revenue to help keep Temple affordable and accessible for our students.”

But not all of the university recycling efforts flow top-down. Many of the best programs have resulted from individual students who had their individual “ah ha” moment. For example, when Hannah DePorter, a junior at University of Wisconsin, was visiting the agriculture research stations run by the university, she noticed that some produce was being wasted even though extra produce was donated to food banks. So what did she do?  She started a Foodshed program at four different locations on campus, so students and faculty can have free local produce and vegetables, which otherwise would have been wasted.

Campus Farm

Many universities now have campus farms as part of their sustainability efforts.

Take the case of Missouri State University (MSU) for example. Last year, MSU introduced a handful of vertical food growing systems called ZipGrow Towers to its dining services. Since then, the university has expanded the program and created a “grow room” to house the 48 systems currently in place. This revolutionary growing and harvesting practice enables MSU’s dining services to grow fresh and local produce right on campus instead of shipping in thousands of dollars of produce each year. This practice creates less of a carbon footprint than traditional agriculture methods and eliminates the carbon emissions from frequent delivery truck visits. “This program encompasses what it means to be sustainable, while also fulfilling our duty as a higher education institution to educate our students on how to be sustainable citizens and consider the global ramifications of their actions and the actions of others,” said Jordan Schanda, sustainability coordinator at MSU.

But campus farms are also being introduced by students themselves. The University of Michigan serves as a good example of a student-led effort. A student organization known as Cultivating Community, which was formed in 2004, broke ground on a garden at their campus’ Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning in 2005. Now, year-round production on the campus farm has been made possible with the construction of a sizable hoop house by students in the fall of 2016. “Food, what we eat, how we grow it, how we buy it, and who has access to it, has deep and profound impacts on personal/public health, economic health, and the health of our environment,” said Jeremy Moghtader, campus farm manager. “It is critical that institutions like the University of Michigan help create the next generation of researchers, educators, innovators, and engaged citizens in this dynamic, trans-disciplinary and critically important field.”

The University of Minnesota has also benefited from an individual student’s efforts. Rebecca Leighton, currently a second-year graduate student at the university, first started Nutritious U Food Pantry, an on-campus food pantry, to provide students in need with healthy food. A few months ago, in keeping with her ambition to implement a permanent pantry, Nutritious U Food Pantry planted an organic garden, which will supply one-third of what the pantry needs. It is estimated that the garden will yield up to 1,300 pounds of fresh, organic vegetables.


Lastly, and most importantly, universities are the hub for all of the technological improvements that will help improve the environment. This is where “energy miracles,” to coin a phrase attributed to Bill Gates, are created. A significant portion of environmental sustainability research and technology growth takes place on college campuses. Professors, students, and researchers help lead the charge to achieve our goal of sustainability.

Here are some of the recent “energy miracles” reported by TUN over the past few months:  

  • Environmentally-Friendly Diesel Engines. A team at Loughborough University in the UK has invented a technology to remove diesel nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions that previously were released into the atmosphere. Until now, the technologies available only allowed for the removal of harmful NOx at high exhaust temperatures exceeding 250ºC or 482ºF. But exhaust temperatures don’t always reach that high. The new technology, named Ammonia Creation and Conversion Technology, is the only existing technology that will work at temperatures as low as 60ºC or 140ºF. “This means that the NOx reduction system remains active through the whole real world driving cycle, leading to significant reductions in tailpipe emissions,” said Graham Hargrave, professor of optical diagnostics at Loughborough University.
  • A New Energy Source.  A team of researchers at Penn State University has created a new technology to generate energy where seawater and freshwater meet, which they claim could satisfy over 40 percent of global energy demands. The technology generates electricity from where the rivers meet the ocean, based on the energy transfer caused by the difference in the salt concentrations between the two water sources. “Our work demonstrated that a battery-like device can generate considerable amounts of electricity when mixing freshwater and seawater, possibly making it economically viable,” said Christopher Gorski, assistant professor of environmental engineering at Penn State.
  • The Human Battery.  Dr. Cary L. Pint, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University, and his team of graduate students have created a technology to harness the existing kinetic energy generated by daily human motion, albeit in small amounts. The team created a prototype energy harvesting device that’s small enough and thin enough to be sewn into existing textiles and fabrics without any impact on the comfort or aesthetic of the clothing. The device is made entirely of black phosphorus, and generates electricity whenever it is bent, pressed on, or vibrated. If one were to imbed this device in an article of clothing, the wearer’s every action—walking, typing, high-fiving—would produce electricity. The total power output of this prototype device is enough to power a small LCD screen, and will likely be used for charging mobile phones.
  • Rechargeable Zinc-Air Batteries.  A team of chemical engineering researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore has developed rechargeable zinc-air batteries that could replace lithium-ion batteries as the power source for electronic devices. Zinc-air batteries, as the name suggests, use zinc metal and oxygen as the source of their power. They are more sustainable, cheaper to produce, and more stable than conventional lithium-ion batteries. “It took more than 20 years to develop lithium-ion batteries into successful commercial products,” said Yuan Chen, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Sydney’s School of Engineering and Information Technologies. “We hope to see successful commercial rechargeable zinc-air batteries in 5 to 10 years time.”
  • Low-Cost, But More Powerful, Batteries. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed the first all-solid-state battery cells, capable of storing five times as much power as the current lithium-ion battery. Leading this research is John Goodenough, co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery and professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the university. Goodenough partnered with Maria Helena Braga, physicist and fellow Cockrell School of Engineering researcher, to create a revolutionary, low-cost battery with the potential to store enough energy to power homes, boats, and an all-electric road vehicle, which is their first priority.
  • Wireless Charging of Moving Objects. Stanford University researchers Shanhui Fan, a professor of electrical engineering, and Sid Assawaworrarit, graduate student, have developed a way to wirelessly deliver electricity to moving objects. Their technology could eventually charge electric vehicles and mobile devices, such as cell phones or medical implants, without the need of a stationary power source. In the case of electric cars, the technology could be used to create “charging lanes” on the highways so electric cars could recharge while driving and have unlimited range. “Application of dynamic charging in a road transport application, where a car recharges as it drives by, can reduce the use of fossil fuel, thus reducing CO2 emission,” said Assawaworrarit. “Also, with availability of charging on-the-fly, the battery capacity required for battery-equipped devices can be lowered, reducing the potential environmental impact from mining/processing of materials used in making batteries.”
  • Green Tires. A team from the University of Minnesota has engineered a way to create automotive tires from trees and grass. Professor Paul Dauenhauer, one of the project’s leading researchers, notes that the invention “could have a major impact on the multi-billion dollar automobile tires industry.” It seems as though the green tire movement is in full effect, with great minds using natural resources to engineer sustainable solutions for a growing problem. The need for such a product has never been greater. Statistics indicate that 65 percent of all used tires end up in landfills with only 35 percent of it recycled.
  • In-Place Soil Remediation. A team of researchers at Northeastern University has developed a method to remove a common carcinogenic pesticide contaminant from soil with the use of lasers, without the costly need of removing the contaminated soil. This is important in that current practices to remove contaminants from soil involve removing the polluted soil and transport it back and forth from a treatment plant, which adds carbon to the atmosphere through trucking of the material. Since 95 percent of the world’s food comes from soil and nearly a third of global soil resources have been lost due to erosion and unsustainable soil management practices, the need to remediate soil without contributing to climate change will be needed.
  • Groundbreaking Research Inspired by Photosynthesis. Researchers from the University of Sheffield in the UK have just unlocked the secrets of photosynthesis and successfully used the underlying mechanics to “direct energy transfer via light at a molecular level.” The research is groundbreaking, and paves the way for future inventions—from new ways of capturing and storing the sun’s energy, to developing new forms of computing technology—all of which can help with the new technologies to reverse climate change.
  • Cheaper Quantum Computing. University of Surrey researchers have developed a method called “surface code” quantum computing that could allow for silicon to be used in quantum chips. The research is groundbreaking because it demonstrates that quantum computers can be built using cheap materials, and the use of silicon crystals will allow for seamless integration between digital and quantum computers. This is a big deal for climate change because we will be able to harness the power of quantum computing for everything relating to energy creation, management and storage. Also, we will be able to do more with the computers of the future with the same amount of energy used now.
  • Artificial Intelligence Reducing  Emissions from Traffic.  Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) have created an artificially-intelligent traffic flow system that decreases travel times by 25 percent, reduces idling time by 40 percent, decreases vehicle stops by 30 to 40 percent, while lowering emissions by over 20 percent.


Although the UN has worked tirelessly to highlight the need for action, the battle to win the war against climate change will need more than just its encouragement. It will be won by people, local government, and businesses making environmentally-sound choices. And universities should serve as the model everyone should look to. The universities have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to win this war, which is evident in their sustainable infrastructure choices, their campus recycling programs, their campus farms, and their focus on technological research that have brought, and will continue to bring, energy miracles.

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