Overview & Examples of Climate Action Plans

Changes of the magnitude necessary to create an effective response to global warming call for more than incremental adjustments in policy. They will represent a transformation of our economy and our infrastructure in creative and positive ways that will fuel economic growth, protect our communities and the quality of life we cherish, and allow our civilization to flourish.

Many of the technologies and tools for achieving climate neutrality already exist or are in development. Now, all of us at America’s higher educational institutions need to put these pieces together in a way that creates a new foundation for growth, prosperity and peace. We must tap the research, education and public service missions and harness all of the scientific, technological and pedagogical resources at the disposal of our institutions. By creating and implementing coordinated plans to neutralize our campuses’ global warming impact within a generation, we can drive the scientific innovation and public education necessary to catalyze rapid change.

Successful efforts to make a campus carbon neutral require broad-based institutional support as well as commitment from top decision makers.

Road Map

1. Top-Level Commitment

Sign the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, integrate in mission and planning

2. Strategies to get broad buy-in by the entire community - administrators, staff, faculty, students, trustees and alumni - and to get the job done

Appoint a committee or taskforce with representatives from all sectors of campus to develop a climate neutral action plan, which will include:

  • Policies and procedures for reducing the university’s emissions
  • A target date for achieving climate neutrality rapidly
  • Interim targets to track progress toward this goal
  • Actions to make climate neutrality/sustainability an integral part of the educational experience for all
  • Actions to expand research or other efforts necessary to achieve climate neutrality

Create mechanisms for institutionalization and accountability that include:

  • An office or group to coordinate efforts
  • Cross-sector responsibility for implementation
  • Development of a baseline of current emissions, reduction schedules
  • Ongoing measures of progress
  • Periodic progress reports to campus and community
  • Training/education for all groups in the campus
  • Rewards and incentives for all groups in the campus
  • Encouragement and support of student leadership on climate neutrality

3. Implement plan and report progress to American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment

A Whole-System Perspective for a Strategic Approach to Sustainability

The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment facilitates strategic planning by setting out the end goal - a prerequisite for a strategic approach.

With a shared vision of the end goal in mind, the various actors from different departments can more effectively work together in achieving that goal. Schools can also lay out strategic guidelines and make plans for working towards that goal, as outlined in the above roadmap, while recognizing that these actions need to be flexible enough so that schools can adapt accordingly to the changes that will occur on this journey towards carbon neutrality.

As we move towards climate neutrality, it is important that we minimize undesirable side effects. For example, a large-scale hydroelectric dam could avoid the need to build a new coal plant but also could have devastating effects on the local ecosystem and community. Similarly, nuclear power can produce less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuel energy but produces nuclear waste and can pose a security risk.

One helpful tool to help address these inherently complex issues when implementing the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment is the Natural Step approach to sustainability. Under this approach, sustainability means:

  1. eliminating our contribution to systematic increases in concentration of substances from the earth’s crust in natural systems (such as fossilized carbon, scarce metals like mercury, etc.);
  2. eliminating our contribution to systematic increases in concentration of substances produced by society in natural systems (such as toxic chemicals, CFCs, etc.);
  3. eliminating our contribution to systematic degradation of natural systems by physical means (such as deforestation, erosion, flooding, etc.); and
  4. eliminating our contribution to the systematic undermining of people’s capacity to meet their needs worldwide (such as supporting companies with unfair labor practices, perpetuating policies that create barriers to escaping poverty, etc.)

By keeping these principles in mind as the end-goal for sustainability, schools can evaluate actions with some negative implications not as choices between evils or trade-offs, but as strategic moves or stepping-stones on the path towards a sustainable future, in which the four principles above are not violated.

When determining what actions to take throughout the iterative strategic planning process, schools can evaluate each action proposed to help achieve carbon neutrality to make sure that it:

  • moves the school towards sustainability, where there are no violations of the four principles;
  • is flexible enough so it does not lock the school and/or the school’s resources into unsustainable practices for long periods of time (i.e. dead-ends on the road to sustainability); and
  • provides a sufficient return on investment (in terms of financial, social, and political capital) to continue the process and reinvest in future actions towards sustainability

Using these strategic guidelines in conjunction with a shared understanding of success in terms of sustainability campuses can better determine which actions to take and what tools to use on their journey towards carbon neutrality and sustainability.

Example Campus Climate Neutral Reports and Studies

(See also AASHE’s resource list of climate action plans)

Other Campus Greenhouse Gas Reduction Studies

Additional Resources