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CU-Boulder on sustainability and green campus issues

Updated 5/2012

A national environmental leader, the University of Colorado Boulder was recognized in 2009 by the Sierra Club as the greenest school in the nation and, in 2010, received the nation's first "gold" rating from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Ratings System, or STARS. STARS is a system developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, with broad participation by sustainability directors and other members of the higher education community. It provides colleges and universities a common set of measurements for gauging progress toward sustainability. Since its launch in January 2010, 234 schools have registered with STARS.

In addition to this site, information about sustainability at CU-Boulder is available from the CU-Boulder sustainability website, the CU Environmental Center, and the University's Department of Facilities Management.

Commitment, Policies, and Reporting

The University of Colorado Boulder has established a reputation as a proactive leader in the environmental sciences and campus sustainability.

  • In 1997 CU-Boulder signed the Talloires Declaration, committing us to set an example of environmental responsibility in our teaching, research, and operations.
  • The University of Colorado Boulder was not only a charter signatory, in 2007, to the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) but is also a member of the Leadership Circle, comprised of signatories who have agreed to help lead the initiative, promote it, and recruit colleagues to join.

CU-Boulder's long-standing public commitment to sustainability is embodied in three key public documents:

CU-Boulder has in place ongoing public reporting on progress being made towards its sustainability commitments:

  • The Campus Sustainability Plan requires periodic public reports be made to the Colorado Governor's Office. The latest report was submitted 1/31/08.
  • The climate action planning process underway per the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) involves numerous public presentations and meetings where the emerging plan is presented and discussed with campus stakeholders.
  • CU-Boulder has produced a publicly available greenhouse gas emissions inventory and has adopted a climate action plan consistent with 80% greenhouse gas reductions by 2050 target.

A History of Student Leadership

  • On Earth Day 1970, students at CU-Boulder founded the Environmental Center, now the nation's oldest, largest, and most accomplished student-led center of its kind.
  • In 1976, CU-Boulder students founded CU Recycling, one of the nation's first campus recycling programs.
  • In 1991, students voted to raise student fees to purchase pre-paid bus passes for all students.
  • In 2000, students on our campus voted to raise student fees to buy renewable energy credits for student buildings nation's, making CU-Boulder the first campus to purchase offsets to mitigate climate change.
  • In 2005, students passed the Sustainable CU Referendum which dedicates $2.80/student/semester to implement on-campus projects incorporating renewable energy, energy efficiency, recycling and waste reduction, and other innovative projects to reduce the campus impact on climate and environment.
  • In 2007, our student government unanimously passed a resolution to become the first student government in the nation to commit to climate neutrality.
  • In 2007, our student government voted unanimously to approve the Energy and Climate Revolving Fund (ECRF). Student leaders invested $500,000 in an endowment to provide low-interest loans to pay for projects that reduce campus energy use and ultimately save students' money in reduced energy costs over time. These savings are used to pay back the loans, allowing the fund to remain whole and support ongoing and future efficiency projects. Originally intended to finance efficiency measures in student-owned buildings, the ECRF has since expanded to cover the entire campus. Projects paid for by ECRF are reducing carbon emission on campus by more than 250 tons a year and receiving, on average, a 37.8% return on investment.
  • By 2012 the University of Colorado Student Government (CUSG) reduced the net emissions of greenhouse gases, or GHGs, from its student-run facilities to zero after committing in 2007 to reach carbon neutrality. CUSG operates three large CU-Boulder facilities including the University Memorial Center, Student Recreation Center, and Wardenburg Health Center. More than 9,000 metric tons of GHG emissions attributed to operating the student-run buildings have been eliminated through renewable energy generation, energy conservation measures and carbon-offset strategies implemented by CUSG. Carbon neutrality was reached even as square footage and usage of the facilities increased in recent years.

Practical Implementation

The University of Colorado Boulder:

  • employs a  director of campus sustainability
  • has a formal committee with participation from students that is devoted to advancing sustainability on campus
  • established in 1997 a campus Sustainability Awards program to recognize efforts to make the university a more sustainable institution
  • derives 6-7% of its energy consumption, including heating/cooling and electrical, from renewable resources
  • includes environmental performance requirements in procurement contracts for paper, cleaning, building materials, and equipment
  • has implemented the Buff Energy Star Award Program to reduce energy consumption, reduce campus CO2 emissions and other environmental impacts of energy usage, and provide energy conservation learning opportunities
  • no longer serves bottled water in dining halls, gives every incoming freshman a free refillable water container, and installed water refill stations across campus
  • began, in 2008, a zero-waste and carbon reduction program for football games at Folsom Field stadium--a program which has since expanded to include the Coors Events Center and all of CU-Boulder's sporting events
  • offers members of the campus community assistance in planning zero-waste events
  • has an overall waste diversion rate of 37%
  • has implemented an Integrated Pest Management Plan (IPM) that emphasizes least-toxic, humane pest control services and an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management
  • has established energy performance standards beyond code for all buildings upgrades
  • has an impressive ten LEED-certified buildings (one Platinum, eight Gold, one Silver) on campus, totaling over 1,400,000 square feet (all new building projects and building renovation projects aim for a high LEED Gold rating)
  • retrofitted/renovated 50% of buildings not certified LEED or comparable (insulation, windows, or HVAC) between 2005 and 2008
  • uses cleaning products that are all Green Seal certified (100% by total expenditures)
  • offers complete vegetarian options for 100% of meals in the dining halls
  • directs approximately 17% of food expenditures toward local, organic, or otherwise environmentally preferable food
  • encourages alternatives to single passenger automobile use by students by offering free bus pass, universal access transit pass, bike share/rent, and guaranteed ride home (approximately 70% of student trips to/from campus are through alternative transportation- bus, bike, walking)

Measurable Outcomes

An aggressive campus operational greening campaign has produced consistently reduced energy and potable water consumption trends since 2001 in spite of ongoing growth in student population and in research funding that leads to increased lab activity. In the years from 2001-02 to 2010-11:

  • Electricity usage fell from 15.34 KWh/ft2 to 12.19 KWh/ft2.
  • Steam use decreased from 75.19 lbs/ft2 to 51.95 lbs/ ft2.
  • Potable water consumption declined from 61.69 Gal/ft2 to 23.57 Gal/ft2 for over 10.8 million square feet of campus buildings.

In addition, CU-Boulder has reduced total energy use by 20 percent and stabilized carbon emissions compared to 2005 levels even though the campus has grown by 25 percent, or about 2.2 million square feet in facilities, since that time.

These reductions are direct results of a large number of energy conservation projects such as:

Education, Research, and Careers

Environmental education at CU-Boulder includes formal degree programs, a certificate program, residential academic programs, resources for faculty, and volunteer efforts.

  • The Environmental Studies Program is an interdisciplinary program designed to provide a broad, but rigorous education in environmental issues and problem-solving, as opposed to a traditional, discipline-based training.
    • The program offers BA, MS, and PhD degrees that draw on courses and expertise from nearly twenty participating departments and other units on campus, emphasizing the earth and natural sciences as well as the social sciences and humanities.
    • Undergraduates have the opportunity to participate in the Baker Residential Academic Program, which offers smaller courses and an interdisciplinary curriculum with a special emphasis on sustainability and environmental stewardship.
  • CU-Boulder's undergraduate program in Environmental Engineering prepares students to assess and develop engineering solutions to environmental problems affecting the quality of the biosphere, land, water, and air.
  • Ranked consistently among the very best in the country, the University of Colorado Law School's Environmental, Energy, and Natural Resources Program is one of the strongest and deepest programs of its kind. For more than half a century, environmental and natural resources law has been a key part of Colorado Law's curriculum. Colorado Law's commitment to teaching and research in these areas complements the school's physical location in the Rocky Mountain West--a region defined by its vast natural resources, public lands and parks, and many Indian reservations. Students receive a broad-based legal education in addition to specialized environmental and natural resources courses and practicum opportunities--comprehensive preparation for careers at law firms, corporations, nonprofit organizations, and governmental agencies.
  • CU-Boulder offers a dual master's degree in environmental studies (MS) and business (MBA). Students in this program have career interests that combine corporate business and environmental protection, the management of renewal energy, water conservation, or environmental programs.
  • The Sustainable Practices Program offers individual classes and a professional certificate for people who are interested in sustainability training. Courses immerse students in the latest trends and concepts in sustainable practices and are taught by CU-Boulder experts and leading industry professionals. The curriculum is designed for adult, working professionals seeking sustainability training or retraining for a new career. These non-credit courses can be taken individually or accumulated toward a Sustainability Management Professional Certificate.
  • The Williams Village North Residence Hall houses two interrelated residential academic programs focused on sustainability and environmental issues. The Sustainable by Design Residential Academic Program offers a unique educational opportunity in a residential community setting to help develop students into globally focused leaders who are well versed in both the technical and societal aspects of sustainable designs. The Social Entrepreneurship for Equitable Development & Sustainability (SEEDS) Program is uniquely inter- and multi-disciplinary, seeking a critical  engagement of students in the diversity of global challenges, from resource depletion to climate change to poverty and economic instability. Williams Village North Residence Hall is a LEED Platinum building that opened in the fall semester of 2011.
  • The Peak to Peak (P2P) Project provides faculty with resources to integrate themes of sustainability throughout the curriculum and into the larger learning environment at CU-Boulder.
  • Earth Education is a volunteer organization based out of the CU-Boulder's Environmental Center. Undergraduate interns and volunteers work with teachers in local schools to implement environmental and natural science education into their classrooms.

Campus commitment to environmental education and research has helped CU-Boulder become one of the nation's top environmental research universities.

  • According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), CU-Boulder's $79.9 million in funded environmental research ranks in the top 10 among the nation's universities. When oceanography research is excluded from the total (reflecting CU-Boulder's landlocked geography), the University is ranked second in the aggregate of remaining environmental research categories (according to FY2009 NSF data, the latest year available for categorical NSF data).
  • CU-Boulder's reputation and performance as a national leader in environmental issues and sustainability helps recruit and retain faculty with the recognized expertise to win leading-edge research awards, to contribute to the global sustainability knowledge base, and to enhance an already respected Environmental Studies Program--one with integrated environmental content across the campus.
  • Established in 2009, the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, an interdisciplinary joint research effort between the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), is advancing solutions for producing energy economically from low carbon sources, decreasing reliance on foreign oil, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and using energy more efficiently to meet the global energy challenge.
  • CU-Boulder's fertile environment for interdisciplinary research on environmental issues includes the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (CTSPR), the Center of the American West, the Center for Energy and Environmental Security, the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels (C2B2), the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Countries, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), and the Institute of Behavioral Science (IBS).
  • Students have ample opportunities to participate in sustainability research as graduate research assistants, lab assistants, etc. In addition, numerous courses in Environmental Studies, Design, or Engineering feature student projects that advance sustainability research.

CU-Boulder's Career Center provides active and substantive guidance on "green jobs." In addition to guidance imparted in individual career counseling sessions, CU offers two programs that focus on "green jobs."

  • The Career Services office at CU-Boulder devotes part of its website to opportunities in "green" career fields. The site includes job and internship postings, tips and resources, information on local companies, and links to professional associations and networking opportunities.
  • A faculty-guided student organization called ICE (Investigating Careers in the Environment) holds weekly meetings hosting area environmental leaders that present to dozens of students on the nature of their careers and emerging job trends. The Investigate Careers in the Environment (ICE) Series is a weekly presentation and discussion series dedicated to empowering students to take charge of their future in the environmental field. This faculty-guided student organization in the Environmental Studies Program at CU-Boulder brings environmental professionals to campus to share their perspectives on a wide range of environmental careers and emerging job trends.


The University of Colorado Boulder has included sustainability as one of the cornerstones of its Campus Master Plan, which outlines the growth and development of the campus for the next decade. In February 2010 the Sustainability Task Force for the new master plan specified the guiding principles, sustainability goals, and best practices to be incorporated into a plan that will apply green building practices, energy efficiency methods, and energy production strategies to nearly three million square feet of new growth. Their report acknowledges the significant opportunities for CU-Boulder to improve its sustainability practices and policies. It also reinforces the University's ongoing commitment not only to reducing our own ecological footprint but also to preparing our students to do the same.

Much of this information was originally collected in response to questions asked by Princeton Review as part of their Best Colleges survey, submitted in February 2008. The posting was last updated in May 2012.

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Last revision 05/02/16

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