Comparing Environmental Data

At a gathering of college sustainability leaders, sessions focus on what to do with growing amount of information on greening efforts.
April 2, 2008

As the drumbeat grows louder for colleges to commit to reducing their carbon footprints, all kinds of data are being generated, and all sorts of greening efforts are cited in reports and campus material.

Much of the talk at the Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference, running through today at the University of Maryland at College Park, is about what environmental benchmarks colleges should use, and how they should put their information into a larger context.

"An emerging area of interest is in comparing information," said Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. "How do you make these comparisons? What are the measurements? It's not clear what's the fairest way of doing it."

That this discussion is dominating several sessions of the conference is a sign of the sustainability movement's evolution. Having already named environmental coordinators and announced plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, colleges are taking the next logical step in seeking ways to measure themselves against their peers.

The conference, in its third year, is one place to do that. Campus planners, sustainability managers, business officers and the like gather in small meeting rooms to discuss technical energy reduction strategies and broad environmental themes. The event is a partnership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as several higher education groups, including the National Association of College and University Business Officers, the Campus Consortium for Environmental Excellence, and Dautremont-Smith's group.

AASHE has taken its stab at quantification and measurement. The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS) is a voluntary self-reporting system aimed at, as the association puts it, making "meaningful comparisons over time and across institutions." More than 90 colleges are testing the program during the pilot period.

Gioia Thompson, director of sustainability at the University of Vermont, said it's about time that colleges talk about data comparisons. "We've all been using different metrics and emissions factors, and it's hard to compare with lots of variables," Thompson said.

Her college, along with more than a dozen others, took part in a pilot project that involved tracking sustainability data through common measurements. Sightlines, a company that helps some 200 colleges measure and monitor facility performance, visited the campuses and collected longitudinal data of carbon footprints using a calculator from the nonprofit Clean Air-Cool Planet. Colleges taking part in the project were given access to data from peer institutions.

“We know campuses are struggling to collect data,” said Cheryl L. Miller, vice president of the company. "If you want something to change you have to measure it. You can’t report progress or know whether you’re making progress if you’re not measuring.”

Miller said that campuses are struggling in particular to quantify things like how daily commuting affects their carbon footprint. (Her company does such a calculation using professors' and administrators' zip codes and measuring distance from campus.) One audience member said it's also hard to know how products purchased by the university factor into those measurements.

“It’s all about triaging and picking a few things -- you can't measure everything," Miller said.

For instance, Thompson said, Vermont's campus farms have a problem of manure seeping into rivers during rainfall and polluting the water. "Why collect data on that?" she said. "You don't need to spend all your time measuring; you need to get on with fixing the problems."

Miller and Thompson spoke about the pilot program during a session titled "Your Carbon Footprint -- Separating Fact From Fiction." Students often say that the biggest issue in carbon reduction has to do with cars on campus. Not so, the speakers said. “If you're going to put your hands around something, start with energy reductions [in buildings]," Miller said.

She added that sustainability leaders have yet to agree on the best way of communicating energy savings, but that many are leaning toward a savings-per-full-time-student measurement. What's important, Miller said, is that colleges are comparing themselves to institutions that are similar in size and that are in their same region.

"Campuses that use a ton of energy but are reducing their consumption slowly can look good in some measurements," Miller said. "It looks like they are doing a great job, but they’re off the charts because of the point where they started. It’s important to look at context.”

An Environmental Clearinghouse

In the past several years, higher education associations dedicated to sustainability have collected myriad data and anecdotes from colleges, and assembled best practices on issues ranging from campus planning to energy policies.

Now comes another environmental resource center, this one tailored to business/finance, environmental health/safety, and facilities officers. “CampusERC,” a clearinghouse developed by NACUBO in collaboration with several higher education groups and rolled out in conjunction with the conference, is a mixture of news, best practices in environmental management, case studies and links to documents aimed at helping campus officials understand what they have to do to comply with environmental regulations issued by the EPA.

NACUBO entered into a cooperative agreement with the EPA, which is funding the site for several years, said Michele Madia, director of environmental leadership at the association.

Thomas P. Balf, a consultant to NACUBO who is helping to oversee the Web site, said that if you’re a campus planner you'll likely turn to the Society for College and University Planning, if you're a sustainability officer your hub is AASHE, but if you're in one of the groups listed above and need state-by-state information on regulations and how colleges have dealt with compliance issues, the site would prove helpful.

Balf is compiling articles, culling environmental information available on other university sites and tracking the federal registry in order to regularly update the site. The idea is that when users choose a particular topic, say pesticides, they will see best practices lists and related articles.

“We’re gathering disparate pieces and putting it into a central repository," he said. "But I don’t want it to be so large that it becomes a Google search.”


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