Steps Higher Education can Take to Prioritize Net Zero Carbon

Have you heard the phrase “Net Zero Carbon”? It’s everywhere these days – TV ads, podcasts, shipping boxes, brand labels, etc. However, one place we don’t hear about it often enough is on college campuses.

Net Zero Carbon is not just a trend or a buzz phrase. Consumers and investors alike want to understand the influence and environmental impact of their choices, especially when it comes to Higher Education. It could mean a big difference in enrollment numbers and funding. Students and alumni are holding universities to a higher standard, especially when it comes to environmental stewardship.

If you are unfamiliar with the term “Net Zero Carbon”, some quick definitions are in order. First, let’s consider the two main types of carbon emissions: Operational and Embodied.

  • Operational Carbon

    Refers to the emissions that are attributed to a building’s operations – meaning the building’s use, management and maintenance.

  • Embodied Carbon

    Encompasses the greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance and disposal of building materials.[1]

For a project to truly meet Net Zero Carbon, both operational and embodied carbon need to be reduced (and likely offset). Operational Carbon is usually the only area accounted for when we hear “Net Zero;” however, embodied carbon has been increasingly accounted for and is an important piece of the puzzle.

Why does reaching Net Zero Carbon matter?

Carbon plays a significant role in the warming of our atmosphere (the impact category used to measure kilograms of carbon equivalent is called “Global Warming Potential”). Globally, the building and construction sector account for at least 39% of total emissions (about 28% for operational and 11% for embodied).[2] With over 1/3 of global emission directly attributed to our industry, the impact of reducing total carbon is immense. We will not be able to limit global warming to below the critical 1.5o Celsius threshold without a significant reduction in carbon emissions.

Responsible for over 5 Billion sf of floor space in the United States alone, Higher Education has a significant role to play in carbon reduction efforts.[3] Currently, less than 10 universities and colleges in the U.S. are carbon neutral (out of nearly 4,000).[4][5] While it can seem daunting, there lies great opportunity for Higher Education institutions to focus their sustainability plans towards addressing carbon reduction.

Campus and Beyond

Universities have always held the power to influence prospective and current students, and Alma Mater. Their reach extends well beyond campus boundaries. Utilizing the principles of Net Zero Carbon in campus facilities and operation sends a message to generations of students that positive environmental impact is important.

Placing emphasis on reaching Net Zero Carbon can be a tool used for recruitment, both of faculty and students. Additionally, setting and reaching carbon neutral targets can serve as an investment in the next generation of politicians, scientists, community activists, engineers, architects, etc. by creating opportunities for engagement, research, and activism. Finally, partnerships formed by Higher Education Institutions and other entities can create a ripple effect.

“What steps can my client or my institution take to reduce overall carbon impact?”

Below, we’ve outlined a framework to help guide your educational institution on the path to Net Zero Carbon:

  • Set a Vision, Targets, and Goals
    • Does your institution have Net Zero Carbon goals incorporated into its sustainability vision? If not, make it happen. Then, set up a realistic timeline for reduction. Work backwards from your end date (2030? 2040? 2050?), and commit to reaching your goals incrementally. Make sure to check in on progress bi-annually or annually.
  • Identify Your Baseline and Impact
    • Operationally, this can include using tools such as the ZeroTool to estimate your baseline or EnergyStar Portfolio Manager to capture the total operational energy of your projects. Note that Energy Use Intensity (EUI) will need to be equated to operational carbon.
    • On the embodied carbon side, incorporating Whole Building Life Cycle Assessments into your project scope is the best way to measure and assess baseline carbon impact.
  • Strategize Which Areas to Tackle 1st
    • Look for the “low-hanging fruit.” Work with your design and facilities team to identify what your campus is currently doing, what’s within reach and what areas require some stretching. Prioritize the “easy-hitters” to make sure progress can be made quickly and efficiently.
  • Renovate and Retrofit with Purpose
    • Does your institution have Sustainable Construction Standards? If so, ensure that renovation and retrofit projects are accounted for, alongside new construction. Upgrading existing building stock to be efficient is often more sustainable than new construction, especially on the embodied carbon side.
  • Monitor Your Operations
    • You can’t improve what you don’t measure. By tracking your buildings’ operations, you can ensure progress is being made, identify areas of issue, and strategize improvement projects.
  • Offset What You Can’t Reduce
    • To reach Net Zero Carbon, offsets are often necessary. Through Carbon Offsets, your project(s) may need to purchase the amount of carbon it is unable to reduce. (Note: Carbon Offsets are projects that avoid or reduce greenhouse gas emissions).[6]
  • Promote Your Progress!
    • Use social media, signage around campus, statistics in your recruiting efforts, etc. to make it known that your Higher Education institution is doing its part! Sharing and spreading the knowledge around your campus, and within your alumni networks, can validate and strengthen your Net Zero Carbon game plan.

With the right framework and guidance, a Net Zero Carbon goal is possible. We understand reaching Net Zero Carbon is no simple feat. However, BranchPattern has helped several clients in Higher Education reach their sustainability goals, including charting plans to achieve Net Zero Carbon. If you’re interested in learning more or wondering where to start, contact Pete Jefferson, BranchPattern principal.


[1] Abel, S. (2020, August 26). Embodied vs Operational Carbon. SPOT - Blog.

[2] Launch of the 2020 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction. (2020). World Green Building Council.

[3] Higher Education. (2021). Better Buildings U.S. Department of Energy.

[4] Wise, M. (2020, September 16). Carbon Neutral Universities in the United States. Second Nature.

[5] Degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by control and level of institution. (2020). National Center for Education Statistics.

[6] EPA Green Power Partnership. (2018). Offsets and RECs: What’s the Difference?