Jul 07 2021

As Colleges Tackle Climate Change, Technology May Be Central to Their Strategies

IT leaders can help institutions understand technology’s impact while applying solutions that support carbon neutrality.

As higher education grapples with the effects of climate change, campus technologies present solutions, ambiguity and complexity — sometimes all at the same time. Technology can help reduce carbon emissions, but computing also requires energy, which adds to the carbon footprint.

IT leaders have an essential role in helping institutions navigate these questions and make the best of technology from a climate change perspective.

“Technology adds to the complexity, but not necessarily in ways that are altogether bad,” says Alex Maxwell, senior manager for climate programs at Second Nature, a nonprofit that helps colleges accelerate climate action. “It also enables a lot of interesting and perhaps more rigorous ways to account for things like carbon emissions.”

Second Nature’s signature program, the Climate Leadership Network, has 440 signatory institutions that have formally committed to climate leadership. Its University Climate Change Coalition relies on collaboration and expertise to advance climate resilience, particularly at the community level.

After all, colleges face the same environmental extremes as their neighbors: flooding on the coast, intense heat and wildfires in California. These effects raise many questions for institutions, from the logistical (“Should we relocate the physical campus?”) to the financial (“How will enrollment, fundraising and insurance be affected?”).

As Bryan Alexander, a futurist, educator and writer, sees it, technology professionals have a unique relationship with climate change initiatives. Last October, Alexander discussed these challenges at the EDUCAUSE annual conference in a session titled “Climate Change, COVID-19, and the Next Generation of Higher Ed IT.”

“IT departments will be under enormous pressure as their institutions grapple with climate change,” Alexander has written.

Technology Can Help Colleges Analyze and Reduce Carbon Impact

Second Nature’s signatories are taking a variety of actions to reduce carbon emissions. So far, implementation of their climate action plans has saved a total of $230 million, according to the organization’s “2019–2020 Second Nature Impact Report.”

Bowdoin College in Maine achieved carbon neutrality through strategies such as converting buildings from oil to natural gas, installing energy-efficient LED lightbulbs and investing in solar energy. In Pennsylvania, Allegheny College uses only wind-generated electricity, operates a campus composting facility and has retrofitted buildings to increase energy efficiency.

As colleges pursue carbon reduction initiatives, technology is often part of the strategy, says Maxwell. That may mean submetering buildings to better account for energy consumption, piloting a campus microgrid that could be scaled to a municipality, or analyzing the effects of converting hardscape to a tree canopy.

“Technology is being used in a lot of really interesting ways on campus,” says Maxwell. “A lot of universities are using their own campuses as test beds to try out new technologies and new ways of modeling and implementing renewables.”

Bryan Alexander
IT departments will be under enormous pressure as their institutions grapple with climate change.”

Bryan Alexander author, Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education

For IT leaders, says Alexander, an immediate priority is to “start thinking about the carbon footprint of their campus cyber infrastructure. They have to get really good, up-to-date credible data on this.”

The caveat, he notes, is that calculating the precise impact of a piece of hardware or a portion of the public cloud isn’t clear-cut.

“Right now, the research on this is all over the map. People are arguing about what the actual carbon budget is of information technology,” says Alexander. “So all the IT issues are pretty tricky right now.”

At the same time, technology is becoming a valuable tool to help institutions analyze their impact, says Maxwell. “We now have a software platform that can help universities track commuting behaviors through user surveys,” he says.

MORE ON EDTECH: Here's how universities are using analytics and AI to curb enrollment drops.

Technology Will Play an Integral Role in Climate Resilience Strategies

As the COVID-19 pandemic made clear, videoconferencing and cloud-based collaboration can significantly reduce the impacts of travel and commuting. On the other hand, data centers, videoconferencing, virtual reality and the like are energy-intensive endeavors.

“VR is a hugely intensive computational task,” says Alexander. “Pedagogically, do we think, ‘We’re going to step back from rich media and move toward things that are easier for computers to process and share?’”

He believes IT leaders should prepare for two scenarios: increased demand for their services and service reductions that support climate resiliency.

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Technology also will be a factor in building design and renovations. If institutions make greater use of basement spaces or roof gardens and water catchments to facilitate cooler temperatures, how will that affect wireless access?

“As the whole built environment of a campus gets transformed, the CIO has got to be there,” Alexander says.

In April, 75 institutions signed a letter to President Joe Biden calling for his administration to set a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030, with the ultimate goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

One chancellor who signed the letter, Joseph Steinmetz of the University of Arkansas, noted that higher education is well positioned to take a leadership role in addressing the environmental crisis.

“The scale and complexity of the challenges involved, and the range of solutions required, will depend on the things that universities excel at: research and discovery, teaching and learning, outreach and engagement,” he wrote.

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