Universities and colleges are an important part of the US economy, and they're increasingly seen as key players in the global race to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
Experts say these institutions have a responsibility to be leaders in sustainability because of their endowments, employment levels, public funding*, significant real-estate holdings, energy use, and research resources that touch a variety of sectors.
Climate-action groups like the International Universities Climate Alliance and Second Nature also want colleges and universities help facilitate more solutions by sharing their knowledge and enabling innovation, through their advocacy efforts, as well as more effective research on climate science and related fields. And students themselves are demanding more awareness about the environment.
Each year, colleges and universities deploy billions of dollars for building upgrades and maintenance, food, transportation, energy, research, and education initiatives. Then there are institutional investments on behalf of their endowments.
Higher-education institutions can have an even greater influence financially, culturally, and socially in towns where they are the largest employer, as is the case with Arizona State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Pennsylvania State University.
After more than 650 universities and colleges pledged to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by early 2018, more comprehensive sustainability strategies have been implemented that go far beyond installing bike racks or vegetarian offerings in dining halls. Shifts in spending include upgrades to reduce water and energy use, better recycling and composting programs, the purchase of electric vehicles, investments in clean energy, and the sale of fossil-fuel assets.