Project Overview

In 2018, American University became the first university, first research university, and first urban higher education campus to achieve carbon neutrality. This major goal was reached two years ahead of the initial target of 2020.

In 2010, American University’s Board of Trustees approved the school’s first Climate Action Plan which set an ambitious target date for carbon neutrality of 2020. Two years earlier, in 2008, American University signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and committed to working toward carbon neutrality, building green, sustainable purchasing, expanding public transit use, using renewable energy credits, and waste reduction. In 2009, the Office of Sustainability was established and the first Climate Action Plan was approved in 2010. At the time, AU was the only school in Washington, D.C. to have announced a carbon neutrality plan. The plan established 2020 as the target for carbon neutrality and outlined four strategies that would ultimately lead to success:

  1. Reduce consumption
  2. Produce renewable energy
  3. Buy green power
  4. Buy/develop carbon offsets

In 2011, AU’s first LEED building was completed. AU’s SIS building earned LEED Gold and is the home of the School of International Service, a top-10 international affairs school, and has since hosted speakers including President Barack Obama, President Justin Trudeau, and Jane Goodall. In 2014, AU’s first comprehensive sustainability plan recommitted AU to carbon neutrality and expanded AU’s sustainability goals to include education & research, operations, and administration & engagement.

Following the four strategies outlined in 2010 proved effective. AU has achieved a 20% decrease in electricity use per square foot through implementation of new technology, space management strategies, and behavior change initiatives. AU began buying 100% renewable energy credits in 2011, and brought the first PPA to campus. In 2015, through a partnership with George Washington University and George Washington University Hospital, AU began receiving 50% of its electricity from an off-site solar farm developed in North Carolina. Finally, offsets were used to manage remaining emissions sources, including travel, commuting, and natural gas. The offsets selection strategy involved creating a portfolio of offsets that aligned with emissions sources and provided opportunities for classroom engagement. Together, these projects and strategies allowed American University to announce carbon neutrality in April 2018; AU became the first university, first urban campus, and first research university to achieve neutrality.


In 2008, President Kerwin signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. American University had already established a culture of connection to the environment through its Arboretum. All 84 acres of the campus are part of a certified arboretum, providing opportunities for engagement with nature to all campus visitors. American University included sustainability as one of the highest level goals in the last strategic plan, committing the university to act “on its values through social responsibility, service, and an active pursuit of sustainability.” Former president, Neil Kerwin, stated that “this commitment honors the university’s history of practical idealism, dedication to public service, and global outlook.” Creating goals related to sustainability was a natural fit on campus and quickly became integrated campus-wide. Sustainability goals and key achievements are printed on the campus shuttles.


American University’s 2010 Climate Action Plan included the following goals which were all selected to help the university move closer to carbon neutrality: A. Reduce Consumption 1. Reduce electricity consumption by at least 1% annually, relative to 2007 2. Reduce transportation emissions 3. Eliminate emissions from paper 4. Eliminate emissions from waste 5. Eliminate emissions from agricultural inputs B. Produce Renewable Energy 6. Produce maximum viable solar energy 7. Produce maximum viable energy from waste 8. Produce maximum viable wind energy C. Buy Green Power 9. Buy renewable energy credits (RECs) for 100 percent of electricity 10. Buy grid-delivered green power for 100 percent of electricity consumption D. Buy/Develop Offsets 11. Buy offsets for travel and other unavoidable emissions 12. Develop offset projects for travel and other unavoidable emissions

In 2014, AU recommited to neutrality and included the following goals in the comprehensive Sustainability Plan: A. Education & Research a. Engage Students in Co-Curricular Sustainability b. Enrich Sustainability in the Curriculum c. Promote Research on Sustainability B. Operations a. Build and Maintain Green Buildings & Grounds b. Achieve Carbon Neutrality by 2020 c. Purchase Greener Products d. Send Near Zero Waste to Landfill C. Administration & Engagement a. Promote Employee engagement in Sustainability b. Increase community Service c. Align Investments with Social and Environmental Goals d. Sponsor Annual Sustainability Service Event


Implementing a goal like this at a university is a campus-wide effort. The sustainability committee that originally created the goals includes staff, faculty, and students and is co-chaired by the AVP for planning and project management and the dean of the college of arts and sciences. The first step taken involved creating a campus carbon inventory that went back to 2005. American University uses Sightlines to provide third party review of the annual carbon emissions from campus. Each year the reliability of data, especially in scope 3, improves thanks to efforts across campus to better track travel, paper consumption, and commuting. Each project which helped move AU closer to carbon neutrality was individually evaluated. Projects are measured based on cost, payback, environmental impact, classroom engagement, community engagement, and other added benefits. AU reports publicly through STARS and Second Nature on all sustainability progress and has used the frameworks provided by the pledges AU’s presidents have signed to guide prioritization of work.


2008 President Kerwin signs the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment 2009 Creation of the Office of Sustainability 2010 AU adopts a Sustainable Purchasing Policy 2011 Completed AASHE STARS report and earned Silver 2011 AU’s First LEED Certified Building: SIS 2011 AU begins purchasing 100% Renewable Energy Credits 2012 President Kerwin signed the District of Columbia Mayor's College and University Sustainability Pledge 2012 Green Office program launches 2014 Partnered with George Washington University and George Washington University Hospital to launch the Capital Partners Solar Project PPA. The project includes 250,000+ solar panels in North Carolina, within the PJM grid, which provide each partner with 50% of our electricity 2015 AU hosted DC's first-ever Tree Summit in 2015 and is a partner organization of Canopy 3,000 2016 AU earns STARS Gold 2016 AU becomes first school in DC to partner with WMATA and provide U•Pass to students for unlimited Metro rides at a set semester-based rate 2016 AU becomes charter signatory to the Climate Commitment through Second Nature 2016 Gray Hall Received LEED Silver Certification, first LEED Existing Building 2017 Cassell Hall is the first residence hall to earn LEED Certification 2017 AU Partners with Veteran-Owned Composting Firm Veteran Compost 2017 President Burwell signs “We Are Still In” in response to the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord 2017 Offset Study Abroad through procurement of offsets that fund efficient cookstoves in Kenya, which is the home of one of AU’s premiere study abroad locations 2017 Offset natural gas use and landfilled waste and other small emissions sources through procurement of offsets that fund landfill gas projects in the mid-Atlantic region 2017 First LEED Commercial Interior Building, 4401 Connecticut 2017 Batelle-Thompkins becomes AU’s first ENERGYSTAR building 2017 AU recognized as a Bicycle Friendly Campus by the League of American Bicyclists 2018 Offset university travel through procurement of offsets that invest in efficient trucking 2018 Offset commuting through a partnership with Urban Offsets, Casey Trees, and the District’s Department of Energy and the Environment to plant trees in Washington DC. These trees are paired with traditional offsets and provide both offsets and added benefits from urban forestry

In addition to these highlighted milestones, AU completed over 54 energy saving projects at a variety of scales. Project highlights include: • Campus has reduced overall electricity use per square foot by 21% since 2005 • All outdoor lighting at Main Campus converted to LED’s (390 fixtures). All interior High bay and all parking garage lighting has or is currently being converted to LED. • Implemented Winter Holiday Shutdown in 2012 saving 3.2 Million KWh and 197,000 therms or 745 cars taken off the road since winter 2011-12. • Installed thermal and electric energy meters/submeters in all buildings over 15,000 gsf since 2012. • Completed 54 Energy Conservation projects between 2012-2017, saving an estimated 15,722 MMBTU’s or (287,000 Therms & 3,800 MWh) in annual energy consumption. • Implemented new building CX program 2012. Since 2016 Piloting existing building continued CX pilots (Meteoviva, At-Site, Cimetrics) in 4 buildings (and counting). • Replaced 99% of all pneumatic controls with energy efficient digital controls. • Replaced/repaired 100% of leaking steam lines and manholes since 2011. • Implemented occupancy controls in all resident halls renovated since 2012.


Each project is financed independently. Payback, environmental benefits, and other campus benefits are all considered in each case. In the case of new construction, capital funding is used and annual operating and plant funds are used for other projects. Overall implementing sustainability projects saves the university money each year.


Total emissions:

  • AU carbon neutrality for one year is equivalent to taking 10,000 passenger vehicles off the road for a year
  • AU carbon neutrality for one year is equivalent to taking 5,254 homes off the grid for a year
  • AU carbon neutrality for one year is equivalent to the emissions of switching 1.6 million incandescent light bulbs to LED


  • AU has reduced overall energy use per square foot by 21% since 2005
  • AU has six LEED certified buildings
  • AU has 591,017 square feet of LEED certified space. That’s equivalent to three times the size of the capitol building


  • 100% of AU's electricity comes from a renewable source. This is a combination of on-site solar, a large solar farm in North Carolina that generates half of our electricity, and Renewable Energy Credits
  • Sourcing 100% of AU’s Electricity from renewable energy is equivalent to taking 5,098 U.S. homes off the grid for one year

Carbon offsets:

  • Carbon offset projects include efficient wood-burning cookstoves in Kenya, capturing landfill gas, planting local trees in DC, and investing in efficient trucking.
  • In partnership with Casey Trees and the DC Department of Energy and the Environment, 650 trees will be planted throughout DC

Lessons Learned

Careful, inclusive planning is critical in establishing plans that are achievable. Involving the campus community throughout the process created a culture of sustainability across campus that ultimately led to engagement on projects and successful progress toward an ambitious goal. Staff has changed over time and none of the staff currently in the sustainability office were at AU when the original goals were set. Record keeping, both internal and through STARS, enabled new people to pick up where their predecessor had left off and allowed for progress to continue. Allowing plans to be rewritten and modified over time is important. New opportunities will emerge and some goals will prove ineffective, providing space to redefine success along the way allows the plan to remain flexible and viable. AU will be writing a new sustainability plan this fall and campus engagement in the process and establishing metrics are already being considered. Including sustainability in the strategic plan allowed projects with sustainability value to move forward and provided ample opportunity for classroom connections.



Carbon Neutrality Celebration with Office Staff

Carbon Neutrality Celebration with Office Staff


American University Carbon Neutrality Facts

American University Carbon Neutrality Facts