Campus Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory

Suzanne Savanick, Macalester College.

Suzanne Savanick and Chris Wells co-taught a class like this for the Macalester College environmental studies senior seminar during spring 2008.
This material was originally created for Starting Point:Introductory Geology
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.


Students conduct a greenhouse gas emission inventory for their college or university as a required part of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. Students analyze findings and present information to the college or university community and the Presidents Climate Commitment committee. This class was taught at Macalester College in 2008.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Students will understand the local links to the global issue of climate change by calculating the greenhouse gas emissions from their own campus. Students learn how to collect and analyze greenhouse gas emissions data and report findings to campus decision-makers. Students also develop interdisciplinary teamwork skills, learn how to handle incomplete data, and integrate classroom theory with real-world practice.

Context for Use

In this class, student develop a college greenhouse gas emissions assessment, as required by all signatories to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. The following year after this class, students in another environmental studies senior seminar used this data and developed recommendations for the college's climate action plan.

Research of this kind is a major undertaking. This project requires a team of students working on it as a class project throughout the semester. It could also be accomplished by an individual student as part of an independent study over a year.

If the size of the task is an issue or an entire semester can not be used for this project, have the students concentrate on the four largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The largest campus sources are likely electricity consumption, on-campus combustion of fossil fuels for heat and cooling, commuter transportation, and air travel. Another way to reduce the work load is to reduce the number of years of data to collect. In this class, the students estimated emissions from 1990 through 2007.

Description and Teaching Materials

Macalester College course syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 26kB Aug19 08) environmental studies senior seminar, Spring 2008.

American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment is a high-visibility effort to address global warming by garnering institutional commitments to neutralize greenhouse gas emissions, and to accelerate the research and educational efforts of higher education to equip society to re-stabilize the earth's climate. Numerous greenhouse gas emissions inventories and climate action plans are available.

Clean Air-Cool Planet developed the greenhouse gas calculator available for download. Their tool is widely used by colleges and universities.

Macalester College Reports:

Teaching Notes and Tips

Before the course begins, the instructors should meet with staff who likely have the data the students will need. The Facilities Services department is the most crucial. At the beginning of the course, make sure that the students understand basic climate science and policy. In retrospect, we should have done more of this at the beginning of the class. In addition, have the students develop teams early in the semester and have the teams meet regularly with the instructors to troubleshoot problem areas.

We found that our students needed more time to develop recommendations. Also, make sure that the students present their recommendations to campus decision makers. This class had a meeting with the Presidents Climate Commitment Committee and the college president.

The difficulty of compiling the data depends on the type and accessibility of records. Collecting data on an academic or fiscal year may be more reasonable, depending on how the college keeps data. For a more complete idea of this project used in an environmental studies senior seminar, see Wells, Savanick, and Manning (2009) "Using a Class to Conduct a Carbon Audit: A case study with practical results at Macalester College" (complete citation is in the references section below).

Possible course issues include: logistics (i.e. poor data quality, unequal work loads) and group dynamics issues. We often coached the students through handling data quality issues. We did not have group dynamics issues, though many classes of this type do have this problem. Some instructors spend a class period discussing how to handle challenging groups or bring in a specialist on group dynamics. For further strategies, see the page about how to monitor and intervene from the Cooperative Learning module.

Project Structure:

I. Instructors meet with key staff (Facilities Services, Provost, Registrar, Budget Office, Food Service, Institutional Research)

II. Instructors decide on calculator tool
(Clean Air Cool Planet campus carbon calculator or similar)

III. Course Outline

a. Week 1-3: Carbon audits and campus sustainability
  • Brainstorm: How does a campus contribute to climate change?
  • How do calculators work?
  • What is campus sustainability?
  • What projects are already in place?
  • How does the Clean Air Cool Planet Clean Air Cool Planet campus carbon calculator work?
  • Analyze other school's data

b. Weeks 4-12: Conducting Macalester's carbon audit
  • Have/Needs Assessment
    • What they know about their topic?
    • What they need to know about their topic?
  • Develop Research Plan
    • Have students assign tasks to group members.
    • What are the intermediary steps of the project?
    • Include deadlines and timelines for project completion.
  • Keep Good Records Have students log all telephone and email communications with staff in one notebook. Keep hard copy data in file folders and organize data on a spreadsheet.
  • Rotating group meetings with instructors
  • Campus field trips (steam plant, food service, recycling)
  • Progress Report. One third of the way through the course, have student report on their activities to date. For individual student projects, have students meet with faculty each week to report.
c. Weeks 13-14: Putting it all together
  • Formal presentation to the Presidents Climate Commitment Committee
  • Public presentation to the campus community

IV. Instructors edit final report for Presidents Climate Commitment if needed

See Campus Based Learning for more advice using the campus as a teaching tool.


We used these assessment rubrics in the class:

References and Resources

Wells, Savanick, and Manning (2009) "Using a Class to Conduct a Carbon Audit: A case study with practical results at Macalester College," International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, vol 10 n 3, pp 228-238.

Clean Air-Cool Planet on-line Campus Climate Action Toolkit - (broken link) - contains guidance for every aspect of "campus climate action" along with technical resources and examples/case studies that will help people understand, plan, and execute or implement a climate action plan's various elements.

Campus Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventories Links to completed campus greenhouse gas emissions inventories. The inventories are organized according to the methodology or tool used to calculate the emissions.

Lewis and Clark College became the first college in the U.S. to meet the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol. Lewis and Clark student-developed guidelines are the basis for this project.

National Wildlife Federation Campus Ecology program is a good source of information on energy related projects on campuses in the United States.

The University of Iowa, The University of Minnesota, The University of Oklahoma, and Tufts University all are full members of the Chicago Climate Exchange. Members have made a voluntary, legally binding commitment to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by four percent below the average of their 1998-2001 baseline by 2006.

In 1999 Tufts University committed to meeting or beating the Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas reduction goal. Method for Conducting a Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory for Colleges and Universities from Tufts University

The State of New Jersey adopted a Greenhouse Gas Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 3.5 %. Fifty-six colleges and universities were part of this project.