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Keeping Carbon Footprint Measurement Credible

How IHEs can efficiently explore this issue and put it into action
University Business, Jun 2009

Colleges and universities have long competed for students, faculty, and funding through academic excellence, research success, and athletic prowess. Now, they have a new arena for competition—the size of their carbon footprint. This is a way to measure an aspect of environmental impact through determining the amount of carbon produced by the institution and its activities. Schools wanting to distinguish themselves for being “green” now have hard numbers to back up their claims.

However, institutions entering the world of carbon footprint measurement may find that things are not as simple as they seem. There are few certainties and many unanswered questions, and the situation is in rapid flux.

While carbon footprint measurement can provide useful information for managing an institution’s environmental impact, doing so without a good understanding of the issues can hold it up to criticism that it cares more about green washing than about the planet’s future.

Some emissions are even desirable. For example, if the institution’s goal is to broaden its students’ horizons, one of the best ways is through first-hand experiences of other cultures. Air travel is essential to this. In many disciplines, teaching and conducting field research requires travel of some kind as well.

Carbon emissions are also inevitable. An institution may happen to be located on a fast-moving river that can be tapped for hydro-electricity or have good wind-power potential or extensive forests that can be cut for fuel, but most have little potential to produce their own renewable power. Energy conservation can only go so far — even the best current “green building” technology and low-maintenance landscaping still require some power.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect is that carbon footprint varies widely from one academic institution to another, and not all factors can be influenced by leadership. Urban, suburban, and rural settings influence footprints, particularly related to commuting. So does the percentage of students living on-campus or within walking distance. Latitude and climatological factors play a role. There may be activities indigenous to certain institutions, such as varsity sports teams that have a major following among students, alumni, and the community, causing extensive vehicle travel.

Still, given widespread concern for the environment, particularly among high-potential students choosing a college or university, many institutions seek to minimize their carbon footprint. Many have the goal of being “carbon neutral” — all relevant emissions from the institution and its activities are balanced by carbon reductions elsewhere.

A lot rests on that word “relevant.” The American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (, an organization of academic leaders concerned about climate change and supportive of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, has promoted some order on the complex science of carbon footprints in an academic setting. The ACUPCC has established three levels or “scopes” to consider.

— Scope One includes fuel used on-site such as in campus buildings, fuel consumed by institution-owned vehicles including buses used to carry students to athletic and other off-campus events, process fugitive emissions such as refrigerant leaks, and other direct emissions. Impacts such as fuel consumption and refrigerant losses are already well-tracked by most academic institutions, so calculations for Scope One impacts are relatively easy to establish and defend.

— Scope Two includes the carbon released through purchased electricity and purchased heat or cooling. A big issue in measuring Scope Two impacts is the verification of utilities’ claims regarding sources of power used to generate electricity — how much really was from wind or solar, compared to coal?

— Scope Three impacts are less widely understood or established. They include the commuting impacts of students, faculty and staff, and travel for academic purposes including that by air. One challenge with calculating Scope Three impacts is that there is a good deal of judgment involved in what to include and how to measure it, so that comparative figures between institutions may have little validity.

In measuring these aspects, many institutions rely on their own resources, such as using their own accounting systems to track consumption of their physical plant and institution-owned vehicles to provide a proxy measurement for that aspect of their carbon output. Other raw data can be gathered by students, providing them with income through work that they find meaningful.

Professional services firms, with sound understanding of the issues and experience gained with academic institutions elsewhere, can help design carbon-management programs that have credibility with stakeholders.

For institutions planning to dive, or dive deeper, into the world of carbon footprint measurement, it is important to realize that carbon neutrality is a moving target.

One reason is that as more businesses, institutions, and consumers strive to get their power from renewable resources, they put a strain on the currently-available sources of renewable energy such as solar, wind, and geothermal. It may be relatively easy for an institution to switch from a “regular” to “green” electrical power provider, shrinking its carbon footprint dramatically with one stroke of the pen, but that provider may have difficulty supplying enough power from renewable resources.

The moving-target aspect also comes in as institutions expand both their student populations and numbers of buildings, which in turn increases their carbon footprint.

This leads the institution into the sticky issue of carbon offsets. This means paying someone else, elsewhere, to counterbalance one’s carbon emissions. Currently, there are only three accepted means of carbon offset:

— Direct funding of renewable-energy projects such as wind, solar, geothermal or tidal energy

— Purchasing of carbon credits which provide indirect funding to carbon-reduction efforts

— Purchasing of renewable energy credits, supporting such projects through indirect funding

Offset options vary widely in quality, and so far are still a “Wild West” of difficult-to-verify claims regarding what is promised and delivered. Projects for offsetting carbon through protecting patches of rain forest, or through plans for carbon dioxide sequestration underground, have a projected lifespan of decades. It is hard to tell whether the entity offering the offsets will be still operating in the 50 or so years necessary for the investment to be effective, making the promised benefits uncertain.

In its eagerness to receive credits to balance its carbon footprint, the institution may enter into agreements with entities that run into unforeseen difficulties, or which are more interested in revenue than in providing genuine, long-term benefits. “University makes false claims of carbon neutrality: buys unverified ‘carbon credits’ from discredited entity” is not the kind of headline any institution wants to read about itself.

One of the best ways to acquire defensible carbon credits is to work with established, reputable organizations.

However challenging and long-term the carbon-offset market is, it is generally the only way for an institution with carbon emissions to become carbon-neutral.

In fact, the long-term nature of the carbon management process may work in favor of any institution that genuinely wants to do the right thing. Acknowledging that it does not have all the answers, but being willing to learn and work for gradual but real progress, allows the institution to adapt to environmental prerogatives along with society as a whole. It means that the institution does not need to push technology beyond its current capabilities, and allows it to both participate and benefit from the worldwide learning curve. It will also be the most cost effective way to achieve significant change.

Dorothy Austin is a registered professional engineer (chemical) and a certified toxic use reduction planner — general practice. She is a senior chemical engineer in the Westborough, Mass. office of the global environmental engineering firm Golder Associates Inc. She is responsible for management and technical direction of industrial and institutional permitting and compliance activities, with a special emphasis on air permitting and compliance. She can be reached by e-mail at

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