3 Things to Know About Campus Climate Action Plans

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a Q&A as part of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s panel “Building a More Healthy and Sustainable Campus.” Throughout the discussion, which included representatives from Emory University, the College of Charleston, and the Society of College and University Planning, the panelists discussed unique lessons learned from implementing higher education climate action plans. As a follow-up to that Q&A session, I would like to highlight three key lessons we’ve learned while developing successful climate action plans in support of our client’s goals.

1. It cannot function as a separate plan.

The panelists discussed the importance of including climate action plans as part of overall strategic efforts on campus. This is an important first step. Any climate action plan that is developed should never be stand alone. It can be developed as part of a distinct effort, but in the end, it should always be integrated into the campus master plan, design guidelines, and deferred maintenance plan. Ideally, it wouldn’t stop there. It would become an integral part of recruiting and operation efforts.  

This is a pivotal part of a plan’s success. If the strategies outlined in the report are not a part of long-term capital improvements or design guidelines, they don’t stand a real chance of actually being implemented.

2. It requires you to rethink your definition of payback and value.

Any approach to calculating a return on investment should be multi-faceted and account for the many different ways that the implemented strategies will add value for the campus. This new definition of value should include full life cycle cost analysis, health and wellness impacts for individuals, financial impacts on recruiting and retention, and sustainable value assessments for  impacts to the nearby community and ecology. These variables should all be incorporated into the decision-making process when prioritizing strategies that are a part of the climate action plan.

3. There is no one silver bullet.

Unfortunately, when it comes to climate action plans, there is no silver bullet. It can’t be achieved by installing a bunch of solar or by upgrading the envelopes of every campus building. In our experience, it’s possible to get about 30-40% of the necessary reductions through facility upgrades, but a comprehensive look at century utility plant system and distribution conversion will need to be planned in addition to on-site renewables, off-site renewables and user behavior programs.

This is why it is so important to plan for short-, medium- and long-term elements of a climate action plan that will impact capital budgets. The creation of a “revolving loan fund” for efficiency savings that are put right back into energy conservation measures combined with energy service contracts are a couple of approaches that can enhance an “all options on the table” approach.

There are many lessons learned beyond these three elements, but the most important thing is to create a comprehensive plan that embodies the core philosophies and goals of your organization. I don’t know a higher education institution that does not have some responsibility to the future well-being of our planet and species.  

Colin Rohlfing
Sustainable Development Director, Architecture