By Sally DeLeon, Sustainability Measurement Coordinator, UMD College Park
(This article appears in the November, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)
To lead in the transformation to a sustainable society, institutions of higher education need to clearly articulate their own sustainability objectives and show progress toward meeting their goals. A set of regularly updated sustainability metrics is one important tool that can help keep stakeholders engaged and encouraged to focus on continual improvement. Internal performance metrics and external public reporting are growing areas of importance for sustainability in higher education. Some campuses are reorganizing or expanding their sustainability teams to include positions that focus specifically on measuring and reporting progress.
I am the Measurement Coordinator in the University of Maryland’s Office of Sustainability. I was hired to support, refine and expand the ways that the University tracks and reports progress on its strategic sustainability goals and targets. “This year was the right time to hire a measurement coordinator because we needed someone who could proactively manage assessment and reporting related to the Climate Action Plan, and effectively ensure that key campus stakeholders stay informed and engaged in the process of moving toward a more sustainable campus,” says Scott Lupin, the Director of UMD’s Office of Sustainability (the Office). UMD’s sustainability metrics program has reached a point where there is a solid base load of work to get done every year, and there is also plenty of room to refine the indicators, expand our assessment methods, and harness select metrics to facilitate planning and goal-setting through the University Sustainability Council. I look forward to continuing relationships with people all over campus as we cooperate to advance our progress toward carbon neutrality, innovate deeper sustainability goals and targets, identify and correct weaknesses, and celebrate our incremental progress as a community.
At UMD, transparent, thorough, public reporting is already a cornerstone of the Office of Sustainability’s programs. UMD is a charter signatory of the ACUPCC. Each year since signing the commitment, UMD has published a detailed Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Inventory Report. These annual reports include assessments of trends for all campus GHG source activities, both against the 2005 baseline year and against the previous reporting year. In 2008, the Office began working to develop a standard, easily understood, set of measurable indicators that would give a wide-ranging picture of UMD’s environmental and social performance from year to year. After a year of research and collaboration with campus stakeholders, UMD’s first annual Sustainability Metrics Report was completed in 2010 (the 2011 Report will be released this month). The value of this report is three-fold. First, campus departments become partners in assessing UMD’s progress toward sustainability through the reporting process. Second, the Metrics Report helps the University Sustainability Council determine short-term and long-term priorities. Finally, the Report serves as a concise, neatly packaged snapshot of our progress that can be used to inform and empower the campus community and the general public.
Most of the indicators included in the Metrics Report were the product of a two-phase process. In the first phase, a multi-disciplinary student team—from UMD’s QUEST program—completed a benchmarking study of sustainability metrics programs from AASHE, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), and select leading campuses. From this process, a preliminary list of recommended indicators was developed, including several that were based on credits from the pilot phase of AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS). The Office also collaborated with stakeholders all over campus to refine the indicators, assess data availability and feasibility of regular measurement, and generate buy-in for annual reporting. The published set of metrics focuses more heavily on UMD’s environmental performance than on social performance because campus leadership viewed environmental goal-setting as the first strategic step in growing UMD’s sustainability programs (at the time when UMD’s sustainability program was created, the institution was already well-known for its outstanding equity and diversity efforts).
The metrics are organized into the four categories that comprise the Office of Sustainability’s framework for program development: Campus, Culture, Curriculum, and Community. Campus metrics relate to developing a carbon-neutral and resource-efficient campus infrastructure. Culture metrics relate to fostering an environment where people are empowered to practice sustainable behaviors. Curriculum metrics relate to integrating sustainability into the content of teaching and research across disciplines. Community metrics relate to engaging with the region and the world on sustainability challenges through education and outreach.
UMD’s set of sustainability performance metrics is a work in progress. This year we are looking more closely at STARS and may use relevant STARS credits to guide our development of stronger metrics on education and research, as well as on public engagement. I will also be working with our Department of Transportation Services to develop better indicators for commuter behaviors. In general, I see UMD’s Sustainability Metrics Report as user-friendly tool for public communication and annual performance assessment. It is not a substitute for the type of sector-wide benchmarking that STARS attempts to provide, but it is an important guidepost to assess our progress, weaknesses and priorities. After all, we are trying to ignite widespread participation in a transformation to a more sustainable society. We can’t expect people to participate year after year if they don’t have the tools to easily identify our collective goals and communicate about the progress they are making together.