Top industries cashing in on higher education’s sustainability drive

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Universities are spending billions on going green, posing an opportunity for anyone wanting to cash in on higher education's sustainability drive.

By Emma Richards 

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You may have heard the latest news in university catering. London-based Goldsmith’s University is banning the sale of beef in all campus food outlets.

Beef burgers, burritos and other enduring student dishes are off the menu for good.

This isn’t the whim of some kooky dean taking over, this is part of the university’s wider plan to combat climate change.

They are also trying to phase out single-use plastics by adding a 10p levy on bottled water and disposable plastic cups, as well as installing more solar panels to power its buildings in New Cross.

The university’s newly installed warden has also said the college would switch to a completely clean energy supplier when its current contract ends and look into how all students could take curriculum options related to the climate crisis.


While Goldsmith’s, University of London may have been the one grabbing the headlines this week, they are far from alone in taking big steps to bring the fight against warming to their own doorstep.

Just a couple of decades ago it would have been considered an afterthought – an added extra bonus – in the manifesto of any university, but these days a college’s sustainability policy is front and centre, splashed all over their website and readily available in all marketing material.

Not to downplay the move as a cynical play for enrolments, far from it. The ethos and passion behind this movement are entirely genuine as higher education comes to terms with the vital role they must play in the climate fight.

In July, more than 7,000 colleges and universities across the globe declared a climate emergency and unveiled a three-point plan to collectively commit to addressing the crisis.

Spanning six continents and backed by global education networks, the announcement marked the first time further and higher education establishments had come together to make a collective commitment to address climate change.

Just weeks later, the University of London released its Zero Carbon Estates Handbook – a 44-page guide to provide UK and Ireland’s higher education professionals the tools to combat the problem and consider how they can influence their universities on the drive toward zero carbon.

The handbook itself was a major undertaking, bringing together over 200 people from across society, including higher education, local government, architecture, and design to layout the masterplan for change.

These are largescale projects that are being collaborated on and rolled out across the globe, each university taking its own actions to make it a reality.

And this is all for good reason. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has given us 12 years to act on climate change before the Earth enters “catastrophic” consequences. To keep warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius – the point of no return – would require “rapid and far-reaching” changes across all sectors of society.


Higher education plays a big role in that change. As a truly global industry, enrolling millions of students, its footprint is a huge one. In the UK alone, the higher education sector emits 1.95 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent from its estates and operations.

While it may be a significant polluter, higher education also holds a unique opportunity as the educators of the next generation to set an example for the future.

Universities have long been agents of change – catalysts for social and political action as well as centres of learning. Universities not only educate most of the world’s leaders, decision-makers and teachers and advance the boundaries of knowledge, but as major employers and consumers of goods and services they play a significant economic role, nationally and globally.

While executing their ambitious targets is a huge amount of work for universities, often requiring them to adjust and update sometimes centuries-old campuses and practices, it spells opportunity for anyone in the business of sustainability in higher education.

As they continue to grow in size in the amenities arms race, universities are becoming small towns in their own right. This makes any contract to work on their facilities or run their campus is generally a lucrative one. And sustainability is the big business they want to invest in right now.

A 2015 report from the National Association of Scholars estimated that American colleges and universities overall spend over US$3 billion per year on sustainability-related programmes and initiatives. That’s no small chunk of change.

These are the big-ticket items they’re spending it on.

Solar Power = Sustainability Success

This is understandably a major one.

The July global agreement, which was presented to leaders at the United Nations, commits all 7,000 signatories to go carbon neutral by 2030 or by 2050 at the very latest. Renewable energy obviously plays a huge part in that.

Currently in the United States, educational institutions account for 11 percent of total building electricity consumption. To reach their ambitious goal of zero-carbon, finding a renewable source for this is essential.

Solar panels are becoming commonplace atop university buildings and are certainly being incorporated into new builds. But some universities are going a step further and building their very own solar plants.

In April, Florida A&M University (FAMU) teamed up with Duke Energy Florida to build a solar energy plant covering between 600 and 800 acres of property, and consisting of about 270,000 photovoltaic panels.

solar sustainability
Solar is playing a major role in universities achieving their sustainability zero carbon goal by 2030. Source: abriendomundo/Shutterstock

The Université de Sherbrooke in Canada has seen added opportunity in their homegrown solar panel plant. Rather than just reaping the energy rewards, they are using the site as a learning facility. Student and faculty are now able to experiment on and study a range of state-of-the-art technologies, whilst working alongside energy leaders, such as StaceRackam and CanAm.

Another major plus on the side of solar is, of course, the money-saving potential. While it may cost a pretty penny up front, once installed electricity bills drop significantly.

Architecture & Construction

Energy-saving starts at the drawing board.

As the university building boom shows no signs of abating, ensuring new builds are using the latest cutting-edge energy-saving technologies and sustainability features is a must.

With roughly 240,000 buildings spread across over 4,100 higher education institutions in the US, colleges and universities can benefit from making green architecture and construction a central element of sustainability planning.

Green buildings offer practical solutions for some of higher education’s biggest challenges, which is why so many institutions are embracing the LEED approach to sustainability.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. It recognises performance in six key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, indoor environmental quality, and innovation in design. The US Green Building Council, the founder of LEED, then award those that excel.

The University of Colorado Boulder Campus has 11 LEED Platinum buildings. Source: Jeff Zehnder/Shutterstock

The key to award-winning LEED building starts early, with green credentials being at the forefront of the architect’s mind as well as in the materials and processes used by the contractor.

There are some universities that now make LEED certification a requirement for new campus buildings, and many are achieving this ambitious target.

Take the University of Colorado Boulder’s (CU Boulder) for example. In July, the university awarded its eleventh Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum award for its university dining facility.

The Village Center Dining and Community Commons is a veritable smorgasbord of cutting-edge sustainable features. All of them add up to make the facility a truly unique place to be; after all, there are not many dining halls have a bicycle-powered smoothie station, an aeroponic garden, and electrochromic glass.


It also includes 140.5-kilowatt solar array that offsets 16 percent of the building’s annual energy cost; a biodigester used to treat food waste, which creates an eco-friendly product that can be safely added to the wastewater system and reduces food composting collection costs; a 3,000 sq foot aeroponic garden that supplies the dining centre with fresh salad greens; and 31 percent of building materials are recycled.

In terms of sustainability credentials, it’s up there with the best.

Higher education’s sustainability ‘drive’

Players in the carsharing industry are cashing in on higher education’s sustainability drive (pun intended).

Seeing an opportunity to help out with transportation on America’s sprawling campuses, carshare leaders provide a budget-friendly way for students and faculty to get around.

ZipCar now collaborates with over 600 universities in the United States, working to lower campus congestion, decrease a campus’s carbon footprint, and providing convenient rides between classes.

In July, Cal State Los Angeles won a 2019 Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Best Practice Award for its zero-emission vehicle sharing programme, carried out in partnership with local start-up, WaiveCar.

carsharing sustainability
ZipCar now operates on over 600 university campuses in the United States. Source: Photos597 / Shutterstock

The programme allows people to leave their cars at home and take public transport without losing any of the convenience when they get to campus. Given the size of Cal State LA, getting to meetings, appointments and events can take time and often requires staff to travel significant distances.

Rather than take individual cars, people are now able to book a WaiveCar and share with their peers on trips around campus.

The scheme is a joint initiative between Parking and Transportation Services and the Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility – the first facility in the world to sell hydrogen fuel by the kilogram directly to consumers.

With the cars only emitting water vapour, it’s a huge step up from the gas-guzzling monsters common on many Los Angeles motorways.