Sustain.Life has been acquired by Workiva, the world’s leading cloud platform for assured, integrated reporting.
Learn more

VIDEO: Decarbonizing higher education with AArete

May 16, 2024

The Week in Sustainability – May 13–17, 2024

University ariel shot

Sustainability is more than a buzzword; it’s a crucial component of strategic planning and operations across various sectors, including higher education. Institutions increasingly recognize their role in addressing climate change, driven by passionate stakeholders ranging from students and faculty to administrative leaders. This article delves into how higher education institutions approach sustainability, particularly decarbonization, and explores their unique challenges and strategies.

Understanding sustainability in higher education

Higher education institutions operate differently from corporations. They are typically non-profit entities, which allows them to adopt a long-term perspective on financial returns and prioritize broader impacts like student welfare, research contributions, and community benefits. This long-term approach aligns well with sustainability goals, which often require years, if not decades, to achieve.

A unique aspect of universities is the widespread buy-in for sustainability across all levels. Unlike corporations, where sustainability initiatives might face resistance from some quarters, universities often see enthusiastic support from students, faculty, and staff. This collective commitment is crucial for driving impactful sustainability programs.

Decarbonization: scope and strategies

Decarbonization in higher education involves a multi-faceted approach, addressing direct and indirect emissions. These emissions fall into three scopes:

  • Scope 1: Direct emissions from owned or controlled sources.
  • Scope 2: Indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating, and cooling consumed by the institution.
  • Scope 3: All other indirect emissions that occur in the reporting company's value chain, including both upstream and downstream emissions.

Most universities start with Scope 1 and 2 emissions, which are easier to quantify and manage. However, as sustainability programs mature, there is a growing focus on Scope 3 emissions, which include emissions from procurement and investments. Addressing Scope 3 emissions requires comprehensive data collection and strategic procurement decisions.

The role of data in sustainability

Effective decarbonization relies heavily on data. Universities must establish a robust baseline by accurately measuring their emissions, which involves primary, proxy, and secondary data to fill in gaps. Once you have a baseline, institutions can develop net-zero roadmaps to guide their sustainability efforts.

Institutions must ensure data fidelity and rigor to develop actionable insights and strategies. Advanced tools and platforms can automate data collection and analysis, making it easier to track progress and identify areas for improvement.

Procurement and supply chain management

Procurement plays a critical role in higher education’s decarbonization efforts. Institutions must engage their suppliers to understand and reduce their environmental impact, which involves integrating sustainability criteria into Requests for Proposals (RFPs) and supplier contracts. Universities can significantly reduce their Scope 3 emissions by prioritizing suppliers with robust sustainability commitments.

For example, when renewing contracts, universities can choose suppliers with validated net-zero targets, aligning their procurement strategies with sustainability goals. This approach simplifies the process, focusing on supplier-level changes rather than individual product-level adjustments.

Overcoming challenges and driving change

Despite the enthusiasm for sustainability, higher education institutions need to overcome significant challenges. Sustainability officers often juggle multiple responsibilities and resource constraints can hinder the implementation of comprehensive sustainability programs. Effective communication and collaboration across departments are essential to overcoming these challenges.

Leveraging technology can alleviate some of the administrative burdens. Automated tools for measuring and reporting emissions allow sustainability professionals to focus on strategic initiatives rather than data entry and analysis.

Higher education institutions have a unique opportunity to lead in sustainability and decarbonization. They can develop and implement effective sustainability programs by leveraging their long-term perspective, collective buy-in, and robust data strategies. While challenges remain, combining technology, strategic procurement, and cross-departmental collaboration can drive meaningful progress.

Future-proof your business by fighting climate change

Request a demo
Sustain.Life Leaf Logo


1. AArete, " Higher education: ESG, Sustainability & Supplier Diversity."

2. Sustain.Life, "What are scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions?." Accessed March 15, 2024

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
Sustain.Life Team
Sustain.Life’s teams of sustainability practitioners and experts often collaborate on articles, videos, and other content.
The takeaway
Listen on Apple Podcasts