Campus safety. Student life. Academic majors. These are factors prospective college students usually consider as they seek their ideal school. But at a time when the looming threat of climate change is all too present, many young people are considering another quality: a school’s commitment to the environment. 

According to The Princeton Review’s “2015 College Hopes and Worries Survey,” completed by nearly 10,000 U.S. teenagers, 61 percent stated that having information about an institution’s environmental dedication would influence their decision to apply to or attend that college.

Mark these findings as yet another incentive for leaders in higher education to dedicate resources to more sustainable and environmentally friendly campuses, in addition to long-term financial savings and increased research opportunities, to name a few more.

Indeed, the importance of such efforts is not lost on many university leaders, as sustainability offices began to pop up on campuses at the turn of the century, and have continued to expand and grow with guidance from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), established in 2005.

In recent years, however, the work of increasing energy efficiency and reducing harmful emissions has become far more streamlined, thanks to the development of online tools that can assess carbon emission levels, track improvements, and even ensure that funding for such projects remains constant. This has made sustainability work, well ... more sustainable. The following is a look at some of those tools.

Measure the data to manage the project

When the University of La Verne, a private school 35 miles east of Los Angeles, constructed a 40,000-square- foot campus center that earned a LEED silver certification, the school could point to tangible evidence of its commitment to sustainability and environmental consciousness. On its next major project, a 102,000-square- foot residence hall, the school earned a LEED gold certification.

Despite this validation from the U.S. Green Building Council, it was difficult for school officials to measure their true level of success. How much energy is being used? How much money is being saved? They had no clear tracking system to produce an accurate cost-benefit analysis of their projects.

“We had the LEED ratings but didn’t have any good data to show what was done,” says Dr. Clive Houston-Brown, vice president of facilities and technology.

But that’s changed since the university adopted the Green Revolving Investment Tracking System (GRITS), a web-based tool designed to help institutions better manage and analyze their project data. Now Houston-Brown has hard and fast numbers with which to work, giving the university’s financial stakeholders a clear picture of the cost-benefit for every project. That data has allowed the school to move money from its utilities account into a green revolving fund, which provides funding, in perpetuity, for future sustainability projects.

“It’s night and day,” Houston-Brown says. “If we didn’t have the system, we’d be making general estimates. It makes our ability to maintain our fund and work from our fund far easier.”

Annual reports inform Houston-Brown how much the university can take out of the gas fund, the electric fund and the water fund, while ensuring returns on investments. It also provides reports employees can use in presentations to the university president or the trustees, showing the number of projects, the savings and the reduction in carbon footprints.

But what may be the most beneficial aspect of GRITS is that users are provided access to every project in the database — there are currently more than 1,600 being shared.

“The fact that we can go into the database and see all colleges’ and universities’ projects makes us more efficient,” Houston-Brown says. “We can look at them and say, ‘Here’s an opportunity we didn’t think about. They did X, Y and Z and saved on their water, gas and electricity. Why don’t we look into that as well?’” 

There are now more than 350 institutions in all 50 states using GRITS, and not just in higher education — a small but growing number of cities have adopted the program, as well as a dozen K-12 schools.

“Institutions see the win-win aspect of this, the environmental and bottom-line benefits,” says Mark Orlowski, executive director and founder of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, the parent organization of GRITS. “The revolving fund is about a commitment to an ongoing investment, not just another budget line item where you’re spending money year after year.”

Facility Management Decisions magazine recently selected La Verne as one of its annual award recipients for sustainability work around building retrofits and renovations, efforts that were far easier to quantify thanks to GRITS.   

“(GRITS) helps you figure out how to make the finances work for these types of investments,” Orlowski says. 

Calculators to track campus footprints

In 2001, the first carbon calculator tool was created, allowing institutions to input data that could be used to tabulate their campus-wide carbon footprint, a measurement of fossil fuel energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016, more than 90 percent of higher education institutions that measure their carbon emissions rely on this tool, which now includes an online version known as CarbonMAP.

But carbon footprints only consider one piece of a university’s environmental impact. A school’s nitrogen emissions can be just as damaging to the environment. Nitrogen footprints not only consider energy, but also a wide range of food processes, such as food consumption and production, fertilizer usage, and other agricultural activities that result in nitrogen negatively affecting soils and ecosystems.

When Dr. Jim Galloway, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia (UVA), began what has now been an eight-year project with former student and current University of New Hampshire (UNH) researcher Dr. Alley Leach, nitrogen output wasn’t something schools measured.

“The goal was to educate the consumer on how their use of food and energy resources contributed to nitrogen (released into) the environment,” Galloway says. 

The result from their work was a personal nitrogen footprint calculator that is being utilized in eight countries. Leach has also expanded that work to an institutional level.

“We want to give universities a broader perspective of their sustainability when making a management decision,” Leach says. “Carbon, of course, is very important and is something that many universities are tracking. But we do want to be able to add in other impacts, like nitrogen, because that affects things like climate change, biodiversity loss, water quality pollution and local air pollution.”

Given the widespread use of the carbon calculator, it seemed an additional tool to measure emissions would be too cumbersome. With that understanding, UNH and UVA are working together to develop a combined tool that will allow users to measure both their carbon and nitrogen emissions.

“The data for the carbon footprint calculation and the nitrogen footprint calculation, from a user perspective, are actually the same,” Leach says. “For both tools, you need to know how much electricity you are consuming, how much fuel you are using to heat your buildings, how much fuel you are using for your transit system. We could put all those data inputs into the same tool.”

That is music to the ears of project directors at campuses across the country, people who are easier to identify since they are already in the carbon calculator database.

“Instead of needing to recruit (new users), we can bring the information to existing users of the carbon tool,” says Jennifer Andrews, project director of the UNH Sustainability Institute and co-creator of the original carbon calculator. “As a user I can tell you, we track enough. We don’t want to track anymore.”

From farm to table

While data on the environmental impact of food production is becoming more accessible, thanks in part to the work being done at UNH and UVA, that only tells some of the story. Sure, we may be able to calculate the footprint of a commercial beef farm, but what about the footprint of yesterday’s lunch?

Tom Bryan, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), decided to investigate this, but he couldn’t do it alone. He needed access to a database that could trace a food supply chain from farm to table — and a willing food provider to participate.

He found that a couple of UW alums, who connect farms to food providers via their online tool FarmLogix, would be a major asset in the labor-intensive process of tracing food ingredients back to their original sources.

“The beauty of what they do is that they have a traceability database,” Bryan says. “School district dieticians and dining service directors can look at that database and see where that farm-to-school food is coming from.” 

As for Bryan’s case study, he found an eager participant in Ginger Root, a pan-Asian restaurant in the school’s student union. Bryan was granted access to the restaurant’s entire supply chain, and using the FarmLogix tool, was able to collect data on 70-plus ingredients, learning everything from their method of packaging to the type of refrigerator used for storage.

“I know where that kilogram of broccoli is coming from in the supply chain for UW,” Bryan says. “I know where it’s being transported from, even down to the cardboard box that it’s in.”

Each detail contributes to the environmental and energy output of a given food. And that’s the crux of Bryan’s work: translating information from the food supply chain into environmental impact. He created a database that calculated, and ultimately provided, answers to the carbon cost of his stir-fry lunch.

His more notable findings included the discovery of just how little food transportation contributes to carbon emissions, and how tremendously farm production does. Bryan, who won an AASHE award for his research, is hopeful this work will only continue to expand and grow. He’s seen as much in the Portland-based company CleanMetrics, whose software tool, FoodCarbonScope, allows those in the food and beverage industry to analyze greenhouse gas emissions — as well as water and energy use — in their products. 

“The environmental impact of food is a bit of a mystery, and partly due to the fact that this field is fairly young,” Bryan says. “But the numbers are useful and dining directors can definitely use them to make decisions on an institutional scale.”