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Sierra Club Ranks UNC Chapel Hill First In State For Sustainability

Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill
UNC Chapel Hill completed a storm water restoration project in 2016. The Battle Grove Restoration Project reclaimed a muddy field, improved water run-off and is helping the University reach its sustainability goals.

The Sierra Club has recognized several North Carolina universities for their sustainability efforts, naming them "Cool Schools" in 2017 as part of its annual ranking. The University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill beat out Appalachian State, Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, ranking 28th overall out of 217 universities on the list. 

Among the eight colleges and universities from North Carolina that made this year's list, UNC-Chapel Hill was the only one to surpass its previous year's ranking, rising from 39th to 28th place. UNC-Pembroke and ECU debuted the list this year. The article's author Katie O'Reilly says the Sierra Club's criteria changes slightly year-to-year, but emphasizes schools' practical improvements in energy consumption.

Sierra Club analysts survey universities and calculate the rankings based on the schools' self-reported answers and documentation. This year, the data analysts awarded a high percentage of points in the areas of campus energy use, transportation and fossil fuel divestment. 

"These are the areas that the Sierra Club believes progress is particularly essential to address the climate crisis," O'Reilly said. 

UNC-Greensboro scored well in the category of socially responsible financial investment, which was a new factor in this year's ranking. UNC-Chapel Hill scored especially well for its long-term planning and recent progress in water management and energy conservation. Last fall, the university announced its Three Zeros Initiative -- with a goal to reach net zero water usage, zero landfill waste and net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

UNC Chapel Hill's chief sustainability officer Brad Ives says the school has already met its water usage goal. The university has reduced its overall water use by about 90 million gallons since 2000, despite campus growth. It has also reclaimed non-potable water for to be used for cooling systems and irrigation, rather than using drinkable water for those utility purposes.

Ives says he hopes the school can meet its overall Three Zeros Initiative goal, while testing out green ideas that could serve as models for other state universities.

Here are the North Carolina universities ranked as "Cool Schools" in 2017: 

28. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

40. Appalachian State University

62. Duke University

78. University of North Carolina, Greensboro

146. Elon University

166. Guilford College

172. University of North Carolina Pembroke

195. East Carolina University

207. University of North Carolina Wilmington

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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