Chapter 2: A New Approach to Climate Action Planning: Reimagining Campus Sustainability in a Post-COVID Environment

by Isiaah Crawford, Ph.D.

Posted on September 25, 2023

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COVID-19 has, in many ways, changed how those of us in higher education operate. It also has altered our relationship to the world around us, in ways both subtle and profound. It has made us more sensitive to the fragility of the natural world in which we live and to the importance of a clean, safe, and healthy environment in sustaining our lifestyles and advancing our goals. 

But while COVID has underscored this dependence on a healthy, nurturing natural environment, the vulnerability of that environment—and the urgency of protecting it—were already known long before the pandemic. Most recently, in March 2023, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that, without immediate and decisive action, the Earth will likely pass a dangerous temperature threshold within the next decade, “creating compound and cascading risks that are more complex and difficult to manage.”1

At the same time, it has become clear that the old ways of planning for a sustainable future are not sufficient to meet the current moment. Higher education institutions need to reimagine our approach to the problem, both in our physical infrastructure and in our culture. Sustainability has been a buzzword on college campuses for several decades now, but successes have been hard to find. Second Nature, an organization founded in 1993 to “accelerate climate action in, and through, higher education,” offered colleges and universities an opportunity to sign a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve carbon neutrality. As of late 2021, only 11 institutions had claimed to meet those carbon neutrality targets; moreover, most of their progress had come from the purchase of carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates, rather than actual reductions in emissions.2 We can, and must, do better. 

One problem inherent in carbon action planning in higher education in the past is that many institutions—University of Puget Sound among them—started by setting lofty goals before ensuring that they first had an actionable path to achieving them. Too often, ambitions outpaced reality. For some, the act of declaring a bold vision to do better was the end of the conversation, rather than the start of an ongoing process. Recycling and composting programs, reminders to carpool, and other low-hanging fruit made an impact but were ultimately insufficient to reach the stated goal. The target date came and went, with the goal still unmet.  

At University of Puget Sound, we recognize the need to meet this moment with urgency in developing a climate action plan that is both attainable and impactful. In order to do that, we are now undertaking a markedly different approach to climate action planning, one that we hope can be a model for other small, liberal arts colleges to follow.  

At University of Puget Sound, we recognize the need to meet this moment with urgency in developing a climate action plan that is both attainable and impactful.  

Puget Sound has long held a strong environmental ethos and embraced an identity of sustainability through the tagline “Loggers Live Green.” We are one of 173 U.S. signatories, and one of 550 worldwide, to the 1990 Talloires Declaration,3 stating that “institutions of higher learning will be world leaders in developing, creating, and supporting sustainability.” However, like many of our peers, we have struggled to meet our early carbon commitments, including a goal of being carbon neutral by 2025 that, while aspirational, was not realistic for our institution. Our multi-year strategic plan, Leadership for a Changing World, challenges us to go beyond environmentalism to champion environmental justice and sustainability.4 In concert with that aim, we have set a goal of truly phasing out our fossil fuel use. As I write this, our campus is in the midst of a year-long process that we expect will result in a realistic, actionable, Climate Action Plan to decarbonize campus operations, with the goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions with minimal reliance on carbon offsets.

While many universities have engaged in climate action planning to date, we believe our approach to be novel in the higher education sector, in that the choice of a target date for decarbonization will come after, not before, the identification of strategies to reach a carbon neutrality goal. Through a robust stakeholder engagement process—which is essential for securing buy-in—we are seeking to understand the barriers to, and the investment needed for, two different de-carbonization timelines; once we have a clear understanding of those variables, we will choose an informed and feasible target date. By first analyzing multiple paths to our goal and understanding the needs of our campus community, we will be in a position to choose the strategies and timeline that will yield the best result. 

Other aspects of our process will be familiar to those who have engaged with climate action planning, and are as follows:  

  • Benchmarking of our current Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. Scope 1 emissions, according to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Corporate Standard, are those produced through direct fossil fuel combustion on our campus—primarily our fleet vehicles that burn diesel and gasoline.5 Scope 2 are indirect emissions associated with the generation of the electricity we purchase.
  • A high-level overview of our Scope 3 emissions. These are the emissions driven by individual choices and consumption, such as faculty and staff commuting to and from campus, faculty and staff travel, and the emissions costs of bringing in outside speakers. While many large institutions are analyzing and creating action plans for their Scope 3 emissions, we decided to hold Scope 3 accounting for a “Phase 2” process, once we have a clear roadmap to mitigate our Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions.  
  • Developing an engagement strategy for campus and community stakeholders, including understanding decision points in the planning process. 
  • Identification of ambitious but realistic goals to meet a net-zero target. 
  • Preparing a clear roadmap that will be used to guide project, policy-making, and planning decisions. 
  • Identifying estimated costs—as well as potential federal and state sources of funding. 
  • Consideration of the environmental justice implications of fully implementing, or failing to implement, the roadmap. 
Our overarching goal is to achieve a carbon-neutral campus—that is, net-zero Scope 1 and 2 emissions—and to do this with minimal reliance on offsets. Our view is that, to truly reduce our carbon footprint, we should consider the purchase of offsets only after all other strategies to achieve carbon neutrality have been fully implemented. 
We have engaged the services of an outside consultant to guide us through this process. We also have a full-time director of sustainability on staff, who will work closely to leverage the specialized expertise of a consultant to help navigate the process, guide the technical analyses, employ best practices for engaging relevant stakeholders, and identify potential funding sources. 
As we investigate ways of reducing our carbon footprint, we also are reimagining what it means to have a culture of sustainability on campus. We believe that the work of sustainability must be a collective effort that engages our entire campus, and we seek to foster that shared responsibility through academic and extracurricular programs. These efforts are already well underway, through such entities as our Sound Policy Institute, established to “build the capacity of individuals and groups, both on our campus and in our regional community, to actively and effectively engage in environmental decision making and address systems of inequality and exclusion.” Environmental justice and sustainability issues and experiences have long been embedded in our curriculum; more recently, students have collaborated with our Office of Sustainability on campus-focused projects through the Senior Seminar in Environmental Policy and Decision Making. (One team, for example, produced a video on energy conservation, particularly in the residence halls; another is creating an engagement plan for potential future investments in geothermal energy.) We also budget funds to support a cadre of paid student employees in the Office of Sustainability—these students create and execute high-visibility sustainability efforts on campus, such as film screenings and panel discussions, and they help promote peer-to-peer awareness around sustainability initiatives. Our students play vital roles in leading our efforts, and they are at the heart of building a culture of sustainability on campus. The ongoing financial investment from the university, along with the involvement of the Office of Sustainability, also helps ensure continuity as students graduate and new students take up the cause. 
The steps we intend to take as part of our Climate Action Plan are not without costs—and, like most colleges and universities nationwide, we face financial headwinds. But this effort is key to the long-term health of our institution. We are committed to supporting it to the extent possible through our operational budget, and we also expect to look to state and federal agencies, foundations, and other philanthropic organizations, as well as to alumni and friends of the university for additional funding to reach our goals. Regardless of how we get there, we must get there. It is incumbent upon us to find a way to meet our present needs while promoting the health or our communities and ensuring the viability of our planet for future generations. 


  1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2023). AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change. 

  2. Barron, A., Domeshek, M., Metz, L., Draucker, L. & Strong, A. “Carbon neutrality should not be the end goal: Lessons for institutional climate action from U.S. higher education.” One Earth, Volume 4, Issue 9, P1248-1258, September 17, 2021. 

  3. Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future. (1990). The Talloires Declaration. 

  4. University of Puget Sound. (2018). Leadership for a Changing World, University of Puget Sound 2018-2028 Strategic Plan. 

  5. Greenhouse Gas Protocol. Greenhouse Gas Protocol FAQ.