American University’s Road to Carbon Neutrality

American University has achieved carbon neutrality, reaching the its goal of zero carbon footprint two years early. The university attributes achievement to solar power and campus-wide efforts.

Washington-based American University (AU) had pledged back in 2010 to become carbon neutral by 2020. Nearly two years ahead of schedule, the university achieved carbon neutrality, becoming the first university in the nation, the first urban campus and the first research university to accomplish this achievement. To reach this level of sustainability, AU followed the guidelines set by Second Nature, a nonprofit committed to accelerating climate action in and through higher education.

“Our community joined together to accomplish this important goal established in 2010,” President Sylvia Burwell said in prepared remarks. “We wanted to demonstrate leadership and innovation in addressing the serious social, economic, and environmental issues associated with global warming. Having a net zero carbon footprint reflects our commitment to acting on our values and leading into the future.”

Introduction and evolution

In 2010, AU wrote its first Climate Action Plan and vowed to fulfill it by 2020. In April 2016, the university became a charter signatory to the Climate Commitment through Second Nature. A year later, the university committed to working toward the goals of the Paris Climate Accord by signing the We Are Still In pledge.

It was team work that made AU’s campus carbon neutral—the university’s office of sustainability, students and faculty staff have come together at zero waste events and joined in campus-wide competitions to reduce waste and AU’s carbon footprint. Furthermore, AU integrated sustainability into their classes: students taking environmental studies course organized events on campus to collect data on their local environment, such as light pollution, animals, birds and trash. Other students produced short films about AU waste practices and campus waste infrastructure, and AU scholars prepared a sustainability city design project.

“Sustainability is something that our students care deeply about. But more than talking about it, we have to model the behavior we want to see in the world around us,” said Kiho Kim, environmental science professor at AU. “Achieving carbon neutrality is a very strong statement about what is important to us, the entire AU community, and shows that we will continue to lead by example.”

LEEDing the watts to carbon neutrality

The university counts six LEED certified buildings, plus four other on track. It also invested in eight green roofs, more than any other university in D.C. Other notable sustainable features include the installation of seven solar panel arrays and nine bioretention basins and rain gardens. In addition, some 250,000 panels in North Carolina supply more than 50 percent of the university’s power needs—the other 50 percent comes from renewable energy credits. Built in 2014 by Duke Energy Renewables, the North Carolina solar system consists of three sites with a combined capacity of 53 megawatts.

Additional features at AU:

  • 500 certified green teachers incorporate sustainability in the classroom
  • 327 AU classes incorporate sustainability in the curriculum
  • 84 percent of AU students commute sustainably
  • 100 percent of AU shuttle buses run on biodiesel
  • 1 million U∙Pass rides taken (on Metro) in the programs first year
  • AU is a bicycle friendly university

AU planted 1,253,460 trees in D.C., which helps offset greenhouse gas emissions from commuting and act as onsite stormwater management for homeowners. Waste-wise, AU strives for zero waste to landfills and managed in 2017 to compost 208 tons of waste and recycle 260 tons.

Video courtesy of American University