Doing Better: NC universities’ focus on sustainability is paying off

With colleges and universities across our state back in full swing for the fall semester, environmental sustainability is high on their priority lists – and that’s good for their bottom lines and for our planet.

At UNC Greensboro, university officials are touting the sustainability of the campus police building and Spartan Village residential community – two newer structures that were recently awarded the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver certification.

They’re also proud of another environmentally friendly feature, even if it’s an idea that has actually been around for thousands of years: the rain bucket. Over the summer, UNCG added a 2,500-gallon cistern to catch rainwater that will be used to irrigate natural areas that don’t have sprinkler systems.

It’s the latest step in the university’s efforts to reduce water use. Since the 2002-2003 academic year, officials say, water consumption on campus has dropped 74 percent per square foot of building space, saving more than $15 million.

Extensive efforts to decrease greenhouse-gas and transportation-based emissions at UNCG, along with a strong focus on energy efficiency, have earned the university a gold rating from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, a self-reporting mechanism managed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

Collaborative approach

An intense focus on sustainability extends to higher education institutions across our state. UNC-Chapel Hill and Appalachian State University also hold the gold rating from AASHE. And, in the newest issue of the Sierra Club’s Sierra magazine, five of our institutions rank among the top 65 greenest colleges and universities, or “Cool Schools,” nationally. The survey factors in everything from the sustainability of food, water and energy to the emphasis placed on sustainability in academics, innovation and investments. California dominates the rankings with the University of California, Irvine at No. 1 and three other schools in the Top 10.

Here at home, UNC-Chapel Hill leads the way at No. 15, followed by Appalachian State at No. 23, Duke at No. 27, Warren Wilson College at No. 54, and UNC Greensboro at No. 63.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s high ranking recognizes the long-term success of its sustainability office, which directs a wide array of classroom, policy and service initiatives. Since 2000, the university has reduced water use by 60 percent per square foot. A recent, three-year “Water in Our World” campaign took a collaborative approach to research, teaching and raising awareness about the responsible use of water.

Energy use is also declining on campus, dropping 31 percent per square foot since 2003. UNC-Chapel Hill recently opened two lab buildings that won the LEED gold rating. Its LEED platinum education center at the Botanical Garden was the first building at the university to include a geothermal heating/cooling system and photovoltaic panels. A series of solar panels on top of the building generate at least 20 percent of the building’s electricity.

Collectively, since 2003, UNC-Chapel Hill’s sustainability initiatives have saved slashed $223 million in energy costs and saved nearly $25 million on water expenses.

Wise investment

N.C. State’s strategic plan for sustainability maps a clear path for reducing its environmental footprint. Its innovative initiatives include developing a co-generation plant that enables the university to create some of its own electricity, a sustainability living and learning community called EcoVillage, and a student led fund that awards grants for campus sustainability projects.

To the west, Appalachian State is enlisting thousands of its community members in an effort to reduce its carbon footprint. The university estimates that the average student, faculty and staff commuter drives about 4,300 miles a year, with each person creating just a little less than two metric tons of greenhouse gas carbon-dioxide emissions. For $8 apiece, they can buy carbon offsets as part of the university’s Carbon Neutral Commuter program. With assistance from sustainability firm Sterling Planet, the offset fees are invested in projects that help counteract the release of greenhouse gases. The initiative has easily surpassed the expected participation rate of 2 to 3 percent, attracting 17.5 percent of eligible people.

UNCG, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, and Appalachian State have all shown sustained leadership in this arena, and it’s time for more of our higher education institutions to follow suit. Some already are. UNC Charlotte, for example, is starting this year to implement a sustainability plan. It has only to look at some of its peer institutions around the state for proof that it’s making a wise investment.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.