When Greg Asner goes to work in Hilo, Hawaii, he is surrounded by a team of coral reef ecologists, data scientists, software engineers, extremely advanced robots and AI.
The Allen Coral Atlas, described by its managing director, Asner, as "the largest marine arm of ASU," uses robots and AI in conjunction with satellite imaging to map the world's coral reefs and monitor their conditions.
ASU's leadership in the project is one of the factors contributing to its recent recognition by the Sierra Club. The article also pointed to curriculum development and individual sustainability efforts among students.
Each year, Sierra Magazine releases its list of the top 20 "coolest schools" across the U.S. and Canada, which ranks schools based on their sustainability efforts. This year, ASU took the top spot.
ASU made the list before, but never ranked this high. This is the fifth year ASU landed a spot in the top 20, and the third year in the top ten.
According to Katie O'Reilly, the publication's adventure and lifestyle editor and author of the article announcing the ranking, over 325 universities participate in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) program provided by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).
Participating schools answer questions about their sustainability efforts in different categories, such as academics, engagement, innovation and leadership. AASHE runs the school's responses through an algorithm that gives each school a score on a scale of one to 100 determining where they rank that year.
While the Sierra Club gets their information from AASHE, they weigh categories differently according to their own values, O'Reilly said. They give more weight to schools divested from fossil fuels, which is one of their main priorities.
This means Sierra's ranking has the potential to differ from the data acquired by AASHE. And in ASU's case, it does.
In this year's "Coolest Schools" article, ASU topped the list with a score of 91.31. The score given by AASHE, however, was 87.10. According to the results of the STARS reports, ASU has the fourth-highest score, behind Stanford with a score of 88, Colorado State University with a score of 88.14 and UC Irvine with a score of 88.59.
The Princeton Review also uses information from AASHE for their "Top 50 Green Colleges" list, along with information from their own survey of student opinion. ASU ranks 28th on this list.
Regardless of ASU's rank, the Allen Coral Atlas pioneers global research of coral reefs on a global scale that is the first of its kind.
"Just a few weeks ago, we had kind of a big milestone," Asner said. "We finished the base mapping of the world's coral reefs, which had never been done before."
On the atlas' website, a colorful, interactive map displays the information gathered through the base mapping for all to see.
This information makes it possible for progression in conserving coral reefs, hammered with the effects of climate change, pollution and coastal development, according to Asner.
"The world's coral reefs have been under severe stress, and it's not like we can't do anything about it," said Asner. "There's a lot we can do, but the tools haven’t been available to empower communities, local governments, national governments, and even multinational organizations like the UN to really do any interventions that are at any sort of real scale."
The initiative began in 2017 as a partnership between Asner's team, The University of Queensland in Australia, National Geographic, Planet and Vulcan Inc. — Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s non-profit. In the years since, ASU has stood at the forefront of the initiative.
The Allen Coral Atlas reaches over 100 countries, and Asner said he hopes to see the program expand in the future.
"It's emblematic of ASU's effort to reach far beyond campus," he said.
ASU's score from Sierra of 91.31 was a two-point increase from last year.
ASU moved up the list within the last few years, largely because they didn't slow down sustainability efforts after the COVID-19 shutdown. O'Reilly said a lot of what put ASU in the running involved new curriculum development, which was put on hold by other schools due to the pandemic.
This curriculum development included the growth of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory and the College of Global Futures, which includes the School of Sustainability, the School of Complex Adaptive Systems and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.
According to Nichol Luoma, University sustainability operations officer, ASU reaching carbon neutrality, implementing a net-zero investment portfolio and implementing sustainability certified foods and plant-forward dining all contributed significantly to the increase in the University's sustainability rating.
Sustainability among students
ASU achieved carbon neutrality in 2019 by increasing energy efficiency in campus buildings, generating solar power, increasing renewable energy purchases and investing in carbon offsets to reduce the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions from campus activity.
Campus dining halls offer plant-based "daily root" menus and prioritize produce grown within 250 miles of campus to reduce the University’s carbon footprint when it comes to food.
"Sustainability is integrated into nearly everything we do at ASU from academics, operations, design, planning, student experience and more," Luoma said. "It's a culmination of efforts from across the institution that moved ASU to No. 1."
Lately, much of ASU's sustainability efforts have focused on reducing food waste. In last year's annual “Zero Waste" report, the University reported that food waste accounted for 7.7% of the total waste stream at 665 tons.
Corey Hawkey, assistant director of sustainability practices, said the University is executing this through a program at campus Starbucks locations where students can save money by using their own reusable drink container.
Hawkey pointed to the effort of individuals to recycle, compost and "lead a plant-based diet" as means to decrease the school's carbon footprint.
"These actions may feel small on an individual basis, but with 75,000 students on our campuses those actions add up," Hawkey said.
These small actions, though, may not be easy for students to achieve. According to AASHE’s most recent Sustainable Campus Index, ASU is not listed among the top performers in both the campus engagement category, which assesses campus sustainability culture, sustainability education programs and outreach materials, so there’s still progress to be made when it comes to engaging the student body in sustainability efforts.
In campus dining halls, for example, being sustainable by eating plant-based is a challenge for students.
Pratham Dalal, a freshman who sticks to a vegetarian diet, said the biggest problem he faces when eating on-campus is the lack of variety in plant-based foods, which traps students into eating the same salads and sandwiches over and over again.
O'Reilly believes that no school is, or realistically can be, 100% sustainable.
The goal is to get close, though.