Climate Crisis

These are the greenest college campuses in the US

sustainability initiatives by universities greenest college campuses

Universities are pioneering sustainability initiatives to be greener and combat climate change. Image: Unsplash/Erica Thomas

Faith Wakefield
Journalist, EcoWatch
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Climate Crisis

  • Universities are hubs for innovation and research in trying to stop climate change.
  • This list of the top seven US universities for sustainability initiatives is based on scientific, data-driven evidence.
  • It tracks areas from transportation and energy use to accessibility and curriculums.

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and experts say that a combination of technology, education, and activism will be necessary to slash our carbon emissions and preserve the planet. Universities are hubs of innovation and research, so it’s no surprise that top institutions are already pioneering efforts to combat climate change.

But what are university administrators doing to ensure their campuses aren’t part of the problem? We’ve rounded up the top seven colleges for sustainability initiatives in the U.S. based on science-based studies. Read on to see if yours made it to the list.

How colleges are ranked for their sustainability initiatives

Each of the universities that made it to the list has been working diligently toward a more sustainable future, but you don’t have to take our word for it. Each ranking is based on reporting and ratings from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System, or STARS, using scientific, data-driven evidence of on-campus initiatives.

STARS ranks over 700 universities based on academics, community engagement, operations, administration, and leadership in sustainability. These standards are all-encompassing, measuring efforts from transportation and energy use to accessibility and curriculum.

The organization assigns scores and recognition levels to universities based on their self-reported data and sustainability initiatives. All of the universities on our list were assigned the platinum rating, the highest distinction STARS offers.

Which college campuses are the greenest?

Each of the top seven colleges is taking unique, innovative approaches to sustainability. Although we cannot list all of the green initiatives from each school, we’re highlighting the most interesting and exceptional ones here.

1. University of California, Merced

University of California, Merced sustainability initiatives greenest college campuses in the US
University of California, Merced includes students in the sustainability conversation from the start of their college careers. Image: University of California, Merced.
  • STARS ranking: 1st
  • STARS score: 85.50 /100
  • STARS rating level: Platinum
  • Top initiatives: Biodiversity, air and climate, campus engagement

The University of California, Merced, manages over 7,000 acres of vulnerable vernal pool and annual grassland adjacent to the university. The school uses this land for research, education and conservation purposes, and it also works to protect rare and endangered species.

On campus, UC Merced has excellent scores for minimizing waste and slashing energy use. Thanks to strict energy conservation measures, the university buildings surpass the California minimum efficiency standards by 35% to 50%.

The university also includes students in the sustainability conversation from the start of their college careers. Every incoming student has the opportunity to participate in sustainability-related orientation activities, and over 8,500 students are enrolled in the student educators program that offers peer-to-peer sustainability outreach, education, and internship opportunities.

2. Cornell University - sustainability planning

Cornell University sustainability initiatives greenest college campuses in the US
Cornell University currently has 619 employees engaged in sustainability research. Image: Eco Watch.
  • STARS ranking: 2nd
  • STARS score: 86.35/100
  • STARS rating level: Platinum
  • Top initiatives: Sustainability planning, research, waste reduction

Cornell earns a perfect score in the Planning & Administration category, and Cornell’s provost has communicated that sustainability is one of the school’s top priorities.

The university has detailed plans to create a Sustainability Studies graduate program and support large, long-term research in partnership with sustainable organizations. It is also working on opportunities to encourage a culture of sustainability, promising that all students will graduate with an understanding of climate literacy.

Cornell’s research is another impressive accomplishment, with 619 employees currently engaged in sustainability research – 36.52% of total researchers employed by Cornell. Other programs, like “Recyclemania” and the school’s annual Dump & Run event aimed at reducing waste during move-out, have helped the school achieve a 47.3% reduction in total waste generated since 2013.

3. Stanford University

Stanford University sustainability initiatives greenest college campuses in the US
Stanford University's dedication to using solar energy has helped the institution earn a top rank for sustainability. Image: Eco Watch.
  • Ranking: 3rd
  • STARS score: 85.88/100
  • STARS rating level: Platinum
  • Top initiatives: Clean and renewable energy, water use, sustainability-centered curriculum

Stanford University reports that 67.44% of the campus’s total energy consumption is from clean and renewable sources, with the majority of the school’s renewable energy coming from on-campus and off-campus solar installations. Stanford’s dedication to using solar energy has helped the institution earn a top rank for sustainability.

Another impressive initiative from Stanford University is its reduction in potable water use by 67.73% since 2011. “My Cardinal Green” is one program Stanford has implemented to reduce water consumption. Through this program, students take a survey and receive personalized recommendations for how they can reduce their environmental impacts. Students receive points and can earn monetary rewards when they complete the suggestions.

4. Arizona State University - School of Sustainability

Arizona State University sustainability initiatives greenest college campuses in the US
Arizona State University has its own School of Sustainability. Image: Eco Watch.
  • Ranking: 4th
  • STARS score: 87.10/100
  • STARS rating level: Platinum
  • Top initiatives: Research and scholarship, sustainable purchasing

Arizona State University scored highly in part because of its sustainable purchasing practices. These practices include buying biodegradable and phosphate-free cleaners, choosing cleaning products labeled as an EPA Safer Choice or Green Seal certified, buying products with low or no reactive organic compounds and completing all new campus construction by the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Silver standard or higher.

Arizona State University has multiple student sustainability research programs and even has its own School of Sustainability. One notable program at ASU is the Global Development Research Program. This program encourages international student research and partners with the U.S. Agency for International Development so that graduate students can help design “sustainable solutions to development challenges.”

5. University of New Hampshire

University of New Hampshire sustainability initiatives greenest college campuses in the US
The University of New Hampshire’s investing efforts will help the school support companies that align with its sustainable priorities. Image: University of New Hampshire.
  • Ranking: 5th
  • STARS score: 86.09/100
  • STARS rating level: Platinum
  • Top initiatives: Sustainable investment, emissions disclosure, research and scholarship

The University of New Hampshire foundation endowment has over $295 million in its investment pool, of which 46.77% is positive sustainability investments. The foundation hires fund managers who have a history of sustainable investment and encourages them to vote on company matters with sustainable principles in mind. The University of New Hampshire’s investing efforts will help the school support companies that align with its sustainable priorities.

The University of New Hampshire is also impressively transparent about its emissions. The school hires student interns who collect data from campus departments, including Energy & Utilities, Facilities, Farm Services, Dining, and Campus Planning. Greenhouse gas emissions are also verified by a third party and are reviewed carefully each year.

6. State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry

State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry sustainability initiatives greenest college campuses in the US
State University of New York offers 165 courses that are sustainability-focused and 217 courses that are sustainability-inclusive. Image: DASonnenfeld / Wikipedia.
  • Ranking: 6th
  • STARS score: 85.66/100
  • STARS rating level: Platinum
  • Top initiatives: Curriculum, water use, greenhouse gas emissions

State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry has a perfect STARS score for curriculum, offering 165 courses that are sustainability-focused and 217 courses that are sustainability-inclusive. These offerings extend to every academic department, and an impressive 47% of total classes are sustainability courses.

Other sustainability initiatives from SUNY-ESF include water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2007, the school reduced potable water use by nearly 57% and greenhouse gas emissions by 100%.

7. University of California, Berkeley

University of California Berkeley sustainability initiatives greenest college campuses in the US
University of Berkeley boasts over 55 sustainability-related student groups and clubs. Image: Eco Watch.
  • Ranking: 7th
  • STARS score: 85.39 / 100
  • STARS rating level: Platinum
  • Top initiatives: Student involvement

The University of California, Berkeley, boasts over 55 sustainability-related student groups and clubs. One of these programs is the ASUC Helios Solar Program, which helps facilitate solar panel installations off-campus and encourages the school to increase its investment in renewable energy.

The university is also committed to banning all non-essential single-use plastic by 2030, not just including plastic bags and food containers, but also packaging used in academics, research and administration.

How can colleges implement green initiatives?

Colleges and universities make a huge impact on their communities. Because sustainability and climate change are such important topics, it is crucial that educational institutions engage in the conversation and take action to create a better future. So, how can colleges start implementing green initiatives?

  • Fund sustainability-focused research: Universities are at the core of developing new technologies and innovations aimed at solving relevant problems.
  • Created sustainability-centered courses. Education is one of the most powerful tools we have to fight climate change.
  • Support underrepresented communities. The EPA has shown that climate change disproportionately impacts socially vulnerable populations in the U.S.Supporting these communities gives them a voice and creates a space to make positive change.
  • Participate in STARS. STARS is a self-reporting framework for colleges and universities that tracks advancements in sustainability, builds incentives for improvement and contributes to national data.

What can students do to be more sustainable?

If you’re a college student, you don’t have to wait for university-wide sustainability initiatives to make an impact. Your individual choices make a difference, too!

If you’re not sure where to start, our green guide to college living explains some simple ways that students can minimize their environmental impacts. Reducing your consumption and changing your habits can even help your budget — thrifting instead of buying first-hand, walking or biking to class, and opting for reusable products instead of single-use plastics are all eco-friendly options that are also cost-effective.

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