Green Universities

Green Universities

Laura Bridgestock

Updated February 21, 2023 Updated February 21

Find out what universities are doing to become more sustainable, and how you can get involved in environmental issues as a student.

If you look at the QS World University Rankings 2011/12, you’ll see that the University of Cambridge is ranked the number one university not just in the UK, but in the world. Yet according to another ranking, Cambridge is at number 68 – just in the UK.

That’s according to the Green League compiled by People and Planet (P&P), a coalition of UK students dedicated to holding universities to account on environmental and ethical issues. Green university rankings are growing in prominence, as both students and universities place more importance on environmental responsibility.

What difference can ‘green’ universities make to the environment?

Nowadays, everyone’s pretty clued up on what can be done to help build a more sustainable and environmentally friendly society. On a personal level, we know we should recycle, limit our energy use and do our best to buy products with low ‘carbon footprints’, from sustainable sources.

In turn, we expect businesses and other organizations to do their bit. Most now have sustainability policies, packed with terms such as ‘life cycle analysis’, ‘holistic management’ and ‘integrated bottom lines’.

Universities are no exception, and like everyone else are becoming increasingly proactive on green issues.

In 2010, there were 84 new solar energy installations at US campuses, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). In the same period AASHE reported 29 completed or ongoing campus energy overhauls in the US, each creating a potential US$50 million in savings over the next 10 years.

Niles Barnes, AASHE project coordinator, says hundreds of universities have signed up to meeting commitments on energy use and greenhouse gases, and that many are also introducing sustainability into the teaching curriculum – offering both dedicated courses and individual modules.

However, Barnes says there is still considerable progress to be made, particularly in the area of sustainable purchasing. “Higher education institutions spend tens of billions of dollars annually on an extraordinary range of products and services. When sustainability criteria are incorporated into procurement decisions, it can drive the innovation of sustainable products and services in a profound way.”

He adds, however, that education and outreach schemes are equally important – a point which is echoed by Louise Hazan, P&P campaigns and communications manager for climate change.

P&P believes that around 80% of a university’s carbon footprint is related to the behaviour of staff and students – how they use energy, travel, what they consume and so on. In addition, as Hazan points out, “behaviour and values learnt at university have a long-lasting impact on graduates throughout their lives”.

So, while carbon reduction, renewable energy and recycling schemes are all important, getting the entire university community on board is absolutely essential.

What are ‘green’ universities doing to become more sustainable?

Many universities are recognizing these demands, and are investing in greener buildings, greener practices and products, and ways of engaging staff and students. Below are just a handful of examples of green university initiatives:

• Sustainable building design

The University of Texas at Dallas, US, has won multiple awards for its student services building (pictured), which is designed to stay naturally cool and light, cutting down on energy used for air conditioning and lighting.

• Renewable energy

The ‘Green Lighthouse’ building at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, generates its own energy from solar cells and panels, storing excess energy underground. Meanwhile Green Mountain College in Vermont, US, is participating in a local ‘cow power’ scheme. This delivers energy generated by burning methane from, you guessed it, cow dung.

• Water bottle re-use

At some campuses the installation of ‘hydration stations’ – basically taps in the wall – makes it easy to refill and re-use water bottles. The idea is to cut down on packaging waste and carbon emissions from transportation. In some cases the sale of bottled water is actually banned on campus.

• Locally produced food

Canada’s University of Northern British Columbia has taken its support of local food producers to a new level by hosting a weekly farmers’ market on campus. Others, such as the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, have on-site community gardens where students can grow their own organic produce.

• Waste disposal

The University of Lausanne, Switzerland, disposes of food waste by sending it to a nearby farm, where it is used to produce organic fertilizers and also biogas fuel, generating heat and electricity for the farm and neighbouring community. At the University of Peru, paper waste is sold to a recycling company, with the proceeds providing scholarships for students from low-income backgrounds.

• Green transport

Many campuses operate cycle hire or loan schemes. At Duke University in the US, for example, students can borrow bikes free of charge, using their student cards, and also bring in their own bikes for free repairs. At the University of Oslo, Norway, staff and students can use recharging stations for electric cars without charge, to promote this greener mode of travel.

• Awareness-raising events

P&P says 65% of UK universities now hold some kind of Environment or ‘Go Green’ week. Inter-university collaborations and competitions are also growing in popularity; in North America, universities compete in challenges such as ‘RecycleMania’ and ‘Do it in the Dark’, to recycle the most or save the most energy in a set period of time.

How can students get involved in green university initiatives?

The role of students in helping to establish more environmentally friendly universities cannot be underestimated. In many cases, students are the main drivers and developers of a project.

For example, students at India’s College of Engineering, Attingal, took the initiative in turning five acres of barren campus land into a thriving allotment, which is now providing organic vegetables for both students and the local community.

At the University of Sussex in the UK, students have established a ‘freecycling’ shop. Run by volunteers, this is a place where students can donate any unwanted items, and in turn find things they need – such as clothes, books and cooking equipment. So unwanted items get reused instead of going to a landfill site, energy used to make and transport new products is reduced, and students save money: wins all round.

Similarly, at the University of Victoria in Canada, students run a scheme to fix up old bikes and lend them out free of charge, along with some training in safe commuter cycling.

At the University of Tokyo, Japan, the same is done with second-hand laptops.

The list goes on, and even where students are not able to fully implement or fund projects, their ideas and campaigns play a huge role in influencing the decisions made by university departments. AASHE’s Niles Barnes says many universities cite pressure from students as a major factor in deciding to sign up to environmental commitments.

So, if you’re keen to make a difference to the world, there’s no need to wait until you graduate. And what better place to start your green crusade than with the campus where you’ll be spending the next three or more years?

This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in January 2020

Written by

The former editor of, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'