Skip to main content

ASU ranks No. 1 in Sierra Club's 'coolest schools'

Magazine's ranking recognizes ASU for sustainability practices

ASU campus with view of library on left side and solar shades on the right
September 09, 2021
Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2021 year in review.

Arizona State University ranked No. 1 on Sierra magazine's 15th annual "coolest schools" competitive ranking of the most environmentally friendly colleges and universities in North America.

This marks the first time the university attained this honor out of a record 328 institutions, rising from No. 4 previously, thanks to its comprehensive approach to sustainability that spans academia, campus operations, student life and endowment investments. This is the fifth year ASU has scored in the top 20 of the Sierra Club's national publication.

"Sustainability at ASU is an enterprisewide effort," said Morgan Olsen, ASU executive vice president, treasurer and chief financial officer "It's not just recycling and energy conservation. It's integrating sustainability in everything we do: academic offerings, the research we conduct, the way we operate campus, student experiences, investments we make with our endowment and even the food we serve."

ASU has been a leader in sustainability since 2006 when the first School of Sustainability in the U.S. was launched. ASU also boasts 24.2 MWdc equivalent of solar on its campuses and achieved carbon neutrality for scope 1 and 2 emissionsASU continues to work toward mitigating scope 1 and 2 emissions through operational initiatives and has a goal of mitigating scope 3 emissions by 2035.. Scope 1 emissions are from ASU-owned and -controlled resources such as buildings and vehicles. Scope 2 emissions are generated from ASU’s purchased energy.

ASU has achieved this and other high sustainability rankings in the midst of campus expansions and increases in student enrollment, both of which can affect carbon neutrality.

"It's a huge accomplishment," said Nichol Luoma, vice president of university business services and university sustainability operations officer. "We could not do this without a general commitment to sustainability in every single area."

Luoma said sustainability is embedded in every decision made at ASU.

"It's the undercurrent of what we're about," she said.

Currently, 94.4% of ASU academic departments offer sustainability courses and 83% of the departments that conduct research have some sustainability research, said Corey Hawkey, interim director of University Sustainability Practices for ASU.

Additionally, 37% of the university's total expenditures on food and drinks are plant-based foods, he said.

hands holding plate of food

At the School of Sustainability's 10th anniversary celebration, rescued food — food that would otherwise have been discarded for cosmetic reasons — was served. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU

The ASU Foundation manages the university's endowment and has been on a journey to better align its investment practices with ASU's mission to serve as a national model for sustainability and environmentally responsible practices. In April, a net zero commitment was made to transition the endowment investment portfolio to at least net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, says Jeff Mindlin, chief investment officer, adding that there have been no direct private fossil fuel commitments since 2015, and the portfolio holds no thermal coal companies directly.

"Our current areas of focus are around climate change and justice, equity, diversity and inclusion," Mindlin said. "The ASU Foundation will simultaneously expand the endowment’s investments in sectors and companies that provide solutions to the world’s grand challenges while providing positive financial returns. We have been thoughtful and deliberate about how to create a double bottom line with both fiscal and impact results of our investment program."

The rankings look at ASU's efforts as a whole across all of its campuses. These are just some of the sustainability activities at ASU's campuses.

  • In September 2020, ASU launched the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory that encompasses the College of Global Futures, a major research institute, a solutions service and engagement initiatives.
  • In May, the Polytechnic campus built habitats for burrowing owls, creating a living laboratory for students. The Garden Commons was added in 2019 at the Polytechnic campus and features a community garden that empowers the ASU community to reconnect with their food and learn about urban gardening. The Garden Commons also features a large outdoor learning space. 
owl next to burrowing habitat

A burrowing owl rests near the opening of its underground habitat, built at the Polytechnic campus for four rescue owls. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU

  • At the West campus, 1,000 trees were planted, establishing the Carbon Sink and Learning Forest, on 10.5 acres to mitigate carbon emissions and study the urban heat island effect and carbon sequestration.
  • At the Tempe campus, a residential housing complex added new showerheads to research water conservation opportunities.
  • Additionally, the renovation of Hayden Library achieved a LEED Platinum certification by the U.S. Green Building Council, which is the highest rating available. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system assesses the sustainability of structures based on their construction, design, maintenance and operations.

ASU now has 66 LEED-certified building projects: seven LEED Platinum, 34 LEED Gold, 24 LEED Silver and 1 LEED-certified.

“This recognition by Sierra Magazine is a further demonstration of ASU’s commitment to find options for a future in which life can thrive on a healthy planet,” said Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of global futures for ASU.

“We find ourselves at a time and place where extreme environmental and societal events surround and confront us on a daily basis. It is essential that we continue to build the programs and structures such as the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory that allow academia to play a significant role in charting a safe way into a sustainable future. Rankings such as this one are merely a proof point of our endeavors.”

Solar structures as seen through tree branches

ASU's campuses have hundreds of types of trees — as well as 24.2 MWdc equivalent of solar, including PowerParasols that shade gathering spots around campus. ASU photo

The schools ranked in the top 20 were ranked based on their commitment to sustainability curriculum and research, student engagement with environmental advocacy, renewable energy, waste management and university planning and administration.

Sierra magazine’s top 20 ‘coolest schools’ of 2021 are:

  1. Arizona State University.
  2. University of California, Irvine. 
  3. Thompson Rivers University (Kamloops, British Columbia).
  4. Cornell University (Ithaca, New York).
  5. State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry (Syracuse, New York).
  6. University of California, Berkeley.
  7. University of California, Merced.
  8. University of Connecticut (Storrs, Connecticut).
  9. University of New Hampshire (Durham, New Hampshire).
  10. Colorado State University (Fort Collins, Colorado).
  11. Université de Sherbrooke (Sherbrooke, Québec).
  12. Colby College (Waterville, Maine).
  13. Université Laval (Québec City, Québec).
  14. Seattle University.
  15. Chatham University (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania).
  16. University of California, Santa Barbara.
  17. Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pennsylvania).
  18. University of Massachusetts Amherst.
  19. American University (Washington, D.C.).
  20. University of California, Davis.

"This is a recognition of the collaboration and dedication to sustainability across ASU — everyone has played a role," Hawkey said. “We should be proud of achieving this milestone, but there is still more to do to combat climate change.”

Top photo: Hayden Library's renovation achieved a LEED Platinum certification by the U.S. Green Building Council, the highest rating available. Photo by Ayers Saint Gross 

More Environment and sustainability


Collage of an image of windmills and a graphic of a power grid.

Global Futures Laboratory at ASU joins DOE initiative to empower women in clean energy

The U.S. Department of Energy-led Clean Energy Education and Empowerment Initiative has announced that Arizona State University now joins the initiative as a partnering university. The Julie Ann…

Aerial view of the Salt River weaving its way through a landscape of vegetation surrounded by mountains near Mesa, Arizona.

Computer modeling shows where Arizona's winter precipitation originates

The Sun Corridor in Arizona in the semi-arid Southwestern U.S. is a land of seemingly unlimited growth that is constantly colliding with physical constraints. It is mountainous but also home to a…

View of a container filled with apples in the foreground and a truck in the background.

New free, science-based tool offers insights into sustainability priorities

While more and more businesses are beginning to recognize the benefits of sustainable practices, putting them into action can be confusing and time consuming. The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), a…