Skip to Page Content
Sustainability at UCCS: A Rationale for Action
Linda Kogan, UCCS Sustainability Officer
Global sustainability is increasingly the social and environmental imperative of the 21st century.
The 1987 Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future, defined sustainability as, “sustainable development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Further iterations highlight an improved quality of life of present and future inhabitants of the earth, an emphasis on ensuring justice and equity, and finally, living within the limits of supporting ecosystems. For society and organizations this expanded spectrum of values equates to new criteria for measuring success including environmental, economic and social considerations: a triple bottom line approach. This triple bottom line is often referred to as a balanced emphasis on people, planet and profits.
This paper provides a brief overview of current global conditions and makes the case for a university commitment to develop a comprehensive sustainability strategy. The entire UCCS community will be needed to create a legacy that exemplifies sustainable operating practices and prepares future leaders to succeed in a rapidly changing world.
The growing body of sustainability literature contains no shortage of accounts of worldwide social and environmental decline. According to the State of the World Report for 2003, 1.2 billion people—more than one fifth of the world’s population—are classed by the World Bank as living in ‘absolute poverty’. The IUCN-World Conservation Union reports that one quarter of the world’s mammals are in danger of extinction in addition to 12 percent of the world’s birds. Additionally, two thirds of the world’s major fisheries are fully- or over-exploited.3
However, the most alarming affront to global sustainability is the more than 30 percent increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide in the industrial era, representing a major contribution to greenhouse gasses. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released a report projecting temperature rises between 1.8C and 4C. Accompanying this warming, the panel predicted potential sea level increases of 28-43 cm, the disappearance of arctic summer sea ice in the second half of century, and increased heat waves and tropical storms. Perhaps most importantly, the panel concluded that it was 90 percent certain that human emissions of greenhouse gasses, rather than natural variations, are warming the planet's surface.4 James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, recently testified that we have one decade to reverse the course of greenhouse gas emissions if we hope to avoid significant detrimental climate events. 5
In response to social and environmental conditions, there is an emergent emphasis on sustainability in the goals of nations, cities, and organizations worldwide. The United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2015) “invites all nations to integrate sustainable development into their education systems at all levels from pre-school to higher education and in non-formal as well as formal education, in order to promote education as a key agent for change.”6
As emphasized by educational leader David Orr, “The depletion and pollution of the planet is not the work of ignorant people. Rather it is largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs and PhDs.”7 In the United States alone, approximately 14.5 million students are enrolled in colleges and universities, representing an elite population that will graduate to influence and shape politics, businesses, organizations and households.8 William Rees, who developed the ecological footprint methodology, concludes, “to the extent that contemporary higher education nurtures and propagates our prevailing growth-bound myth, universities and colleges are presently at cause of the sustainability crisis.”9
As an institute of higher education, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) is a training ground, contributing to society more than 1200 graduates each year who become business leaders, educators, political leaders and homeowners. Our current paradigm is un-sustainability—unrecognized yet effectively conveyed through our curricula and by how we operate our campus. It is time for a paradigm shift to provide students with the skills they need to live more sustainable lives during and after their college years.
Measuring Institutional Sustainability: The Ecological Footprint of UCCS
An ecological footprint is a tool to measure ecological impact from an entity’s (individual, organization, city, or nation) daily activities. The ecological footprint “quantifies for any given population the mutually exclusive, biotically productive area that must be in continuous use to provide its resource supplies and to assimilate its wastes.”10 Conceptually, this is akin to placing a dome over a city or nation and quantifying the necessary geographic area the dome would require for inhabitants to carry on present activities given the prevailing technologies. Given current population figures of just over 6 billion, the available global per capita footprint capacity, consisting of biologically productive land and sea divided equally among the earth’s inhabitants, also know as the fair earthshare, is estimated to be 1.9 hectares (4.7 acres). Present estimates indicate that humanity is exceeding the Earth’s biological capacity by more than 20 percent, with an average per capita footprint of 5.7 acres.11 This suggests both an ecological overshoot as well as the inability for less developed nations to achieve an equitable quality of life given ecological constraints.
An ecological footprint study of UCCS (Figure 1), conducted in 2003 as part of a Master’s Thesis in Geography and Environmental studies, examined the university’s consumption in six major categories including buildings, transportation, food, services, consumer products, and waste. The study found that the ecological footprint for UCCS for 2003 was 34,543 acres; an area 66 times that of our campus and more than a quarter of the area of Colorado Springs. Our per capita footprint was 4.1 acres, which almost fully accounts for the fair earthshare of 4.7 acres. This is before individual ecological impacts like homes, transportation, and recreation are added. 12
This significant ecological footprint is common for most institutions in Western industrial nations. It is not intended to identify UCCS as a particularly high impact university, but to illuminate how the daily operation of UCCS adds to the ecological overshoot now occurring on a global scale. Our ecological footprint demonstrates the need to begin a comprehensive sustainability journey. By embarking on such a journey, we can not only reduce the university’s footprint, but also train our graduates to exemplify sustainable leadership.
Figure 1. UCCS Ecological Footprint
The Unmeasured Footprint
The UCCS ecological footprint study measured direct impacts from the daily operation of the university. However, the most significant part of a university’s ecological footprint may not be energy use, but rather the failure to teach students about ecological limits and corresponding social impacts. The toolbox that UCCS graduates take with them to ensure their success as global citizens should include accurate knowledge regarding global environmental and social conditions as well as the ability to pursue solutions. We have taken steps toward increasing ecological literacy through our Sustainable Development minor, but there is significant work to be done to reach all students and members of the UCCS community.
UCCS has started to demonstrate institutional leadership in sustainability with actions that include: hiring the first sustainability officer in the CU system, developing a comprehensive Sustainability Action Plan which will be reflected in the overall strategic plan for the university, conducting a $1.3 million Energy Performance Bond project, and committing to achieving LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for two new buildings on campus. The chancellor recently signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, a national movement to research and pursue carbon neutrality. Savings from sustainability projects in 2006 alone have secured over $80,000 of savings for the university.
Pursuing a comprehensive sustainability strategy provides much more than costs savings; it creates a definitive identity for the university, attracting high caliber staff, faculty and students, and increasing retention. Exemplifying best practices in smart growth and sustainable development in our future expansion will enhance our image in the community and create important linkages.
The current global situation is one that requires all universities to take a leadership role in encouraging and implementing solutions to lessen ecological impact, pioneer restorative practices and contribute to increasing equity in both our local communities and the world at large. The success of higher education in these endeavors will be judged by our ability to put forth a bold agenda, making sustainability and the environment a cornerstone of our academic and administrative practices. In this United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, it seems imperative for UCCS to embrace and aggressively pursue a comprehensive strategy that infuses sustainability throughout leadership, academics and operations. Our sustainability journey will require innovation as well as comprehensive individual and organizational culture change to navigate substantial challenges and thereby create a legacy for future generations. Your participation and support of these efforts will be appreciated by both the university and the lives of those whom we impact in the future.
 World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). 1987. Our common future. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
 Starke, Linda, ed. 2003. State of the world: A Worldwatch Institute Report on progress toward a sustainable society. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
3 Starke, Linda, ed. 2003. State of the world: A Worldwatch Institute Report on progress toward a sustainable society. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
4 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2007. Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. http://www.usgcrp.gov/usgcrp/links/ipcc.htm. (Last accessed 9 February 2007)
5 Hansen, James. Climate Change On the edge: Green land ice cap breaking up at twice the rate it was five years ago. Independent/UK. February 17, 2006.
6 United Nations Economic Council for Europe (UNECE). 2004. Draft UNECE Strategy for Education for Sustainable Development. Second regional meeting on education for sustainable development. Rome, July 15-16. http://www.unece.org/env/esd/welcome.htm (last accessed 15 November 2004).
7 Orr, David. 1994. What is education for? Chapter 1 in Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. p. 6.
8 Bartlett, Peggy F. and Geoffrey Chase, eds. 2004. Sustainability on campus: Stories and strategies for change. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
9 Rees, William. 2003b. Impeding sustainability?: The ecological footprint of higher education. Planning for Higher Education 31:88-98. p. 90.
10 Wackernagel, Mathis, and J. David Yount. 1998. The ecological footprint: An indicator of progress toward regional sustainability. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 51:p. 514.
11 Wackernagel, Mathis, Chad Monfreda and Diana Deumling. 2002. Ecological footprint of nations November 2002 update: How much nature do they use? How much nature do they have? http://www.redefiningprogress.org/publications/ef1999.pdf (last accessed 15 November 2004).
12 Kogan, Linda. 2004. Measuring institutional sustainability: The Ecological footprint of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Unpublished Master’s thesis.