Climate change: the greatest challenge ever

Hazel Davies examines how the UK’s universities are responding to the climate change challenge

Climate change has been high on the agenda in 2019 and never more so than among the UK’s students. Back in September, many of the UK’s universities supported a 30-minute stoppage in solidarity with the Global Strike for Climate and National Union of Students (NUS) claims that 91% of students are “fairly or very concerned” about climate breakdown, 80% want their university to be doing more on sustainable development and 60% want to learn more about sustainability.

But how are universities responding to the issue and are they doing enough? 

Earlier in November, the EAUC, the sustainability champion for universities and colleges in the UK, launched a 12-month bid to find ways to combat climate emergency. The Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education Leaders calls on university and college leaders to redouble efforts to tackle climate change.

“The sector currently lacks a clear and agreed road map to emissions neutrality,” says Professor James Longhurst, EAUC commissioner and assistant vice-chancellor, University of the West of England, adding “The Climate Commission has been created to build this road – it is sector-led and action-focused to achieve the step-change in sector performance we all want to see.”

Over the next 12 months, the Commission will develop a strategic framework and set targets, including proposals for ensuring progress, working with students, UK government, regulatory bodies and sector agencies. A final report will be presented at COP26, the UN’s climate change summit, in Glasgow in November 2020.

UAL has joined forces with 20 of the UK’s leading universities to strike a £50m deal to buy renewable electricity directly from British wind farms


Industry initiative

There is a wide range of innovations on the market, enabling the sector to achieve its goals within budget – something we’re all mindful of at the moment.

One simple solution “is to stop using energy when it’s not needed”, says marketing manager Adrian Barber, from Prefect Controls, whose building energy management system, PrefectIrus, links individual room nodes with a central controller.

Using it, managers can take an overview of their total energy use or micro-monitor each room individually, from anywhere with internet connectivity, while energy input is controlled by the node. Students still have control over their comfort, but within set parameters.

“Student accommodation is ideally suited to using ‘cleaner’ energy for heating: it is quicker and easier to install, doesn’t require servicing and is more efficient and controllable,” says Barber.  He cites the example of a Midlands university where Prefect Controls was able to meter and monitor three blocks over a single heating season (September to March). One block (a) had old standard panel heaters with user controls; another (b) had Local controls (Ecostat) installed; and a third (c) had the heating and hot water centrally controlled by PrefectIrus. With (b) Ecostat, a saving of 34% was measured but with (c) PrefectIrus, with the addition of hot water control, the savings rose to 44%.

“Savings of this magnitude across an entire campus not only reduces energy consumption – and therefore helps with carbon reduction targets – but also saves a significant amount of money. With the ability to monitor CO2 as well as humidity, light, decibel levels, water temperature and detect leaks within hot water systems, the benefits of Irus are not only measurable in terms of monetary value but also student welfare and ensuring compliance with water safety plans (WSP) for example,” says Barber.

“We’re committed to reducing energy consumption, particularly in multi-occupancy dwellings such as student accommodation,” concludes Barber.


Leading the way

Several universities have already been working hard on their climate change commitments. The University of Gloucestershire recently topped the People and Planet charts, an independent league table of UK universities ranked by environmental and ethical performance.

The university has a track record for its performance and innovation in this area and efforts to reduce its footprint, but back in 2018 it announced total fossil fuel divestment with immediate effect and pushed forward on the removal of disposable cups from its refectories and coffee counters. It’s also now achieved zero waste to landfill and 46% carbon emissions reduction, despite having expanded its estate.

The university’s director of sustainability, Dr Alex Ryan, says, “The University of Gloucestershire has a strategy built into delivery plans, tailored to different teams and their respective sustainability impacts. It is focused on having the team resource centrally positioned and reporting to executive level, to deliver a cross-cutting strategy that builds value to help meet corporate goals while driving sustainability change.”

One of the biggest step changes, as scored by People and Planet, says Dr Ryan, “is from the commitment to integrating education for sustainable development into courses, to change the ‘brainprint’ of university graduates. This focus recognises how critical sustainability is as an educational priority, inspiring change not just through individuals but in professions and organisations. This happens through student work placements and wider partnerships across the university, including collaborations with global brands like known sustainability pioneer, Interface.”

For other universities wishing to follow suit, Dr Ryan’s advice is simple: “Identify and listen to your stakeholders and create the strategy in tune with the character and expertise of the university.”

[One of the biggest step changes] is from the commitment to integrating education for sustainable development into courses, to change the ‘brainprint’ of university graduates – Dr Alex Ryan, University of Gloucestershire

Climate change initiatives

Central Saint Martins, part of University of the Arts, London (UAL), held its first Climate Emergency Assembly in October, attended by students and staff from management and estates, forming working groups to look at the issues of curriculum, waste, procurement and carbon neutrality. They will reconvene for a follow-up assembly in the new year.

UAL is in the process of establishing sustainability/climate emergency learning outcomes across all its courses. Moreover, the university has joined forces with 20 of the UK’s leading universities to strike a £50m deal to buy renewable electricity direct from British wind farms.

Depending on the rate of decarbonisation of the national grid, UAL thinks this agreement will stop between 2,700–4,500 tonnes of CO2 from being emitted over the 10-year contract.

“The climate emergency and collapse of biodiversity are central issues of our age,” says UAL pro-vice chancellor Professor Jeremy Till, who leads UAL’s response to the climate emergency.

He adds: “UAL is in a unique position, as an arts and design university, to address the issues of climate emergency. An institution like this can imagine new futures. It’s not about refining the current systems but creating new ones.”

He concludes, “UAL is well positioned to use its creative intelligence to make a distinctive contribution to the debate and action around climate and ecological issues.”


10 great sustainability initiatives

  1. Bath Spa has had a carbon reduction programme running since 2010 and has reduced carbon intensity by more than 50% (tonnes/m2/y). It also has a new (2018–2030) Carbon Reduction Management Plan, which sets out a pathway to net zero carbon by 2030.
  2. The University of Lincoln announced a climate emergency declaration earlier in 2019, is developing leading climate change research, and hosted a significant UK climate change conference in November 2019.
  3. At the University of Huddersfield, grounds maintenance is shifting towards introducing more native species across campus, increasing the biodiversity value of the space. A staff allotment group has been set up where staff groups are able to adopt a planter and tend to it at work, with used coffee grounds as fertiliser.
  4. Lancaster University’s Centre for Global Eco-Innovation works in partnership with businesses to research and deliver new technologies and implement strategies to reduce their carbon emissions and help them become more sustainable.
  5. Birmingham City University welcomed a colony of 8,000 Buckfast bees to its city centre campus to aid teaching and research as well as to encourage environmental benefits.
  6. In a move towards paperless careers fairs, the University of Hertfordshire is making greater use of QR codes and laptops to capture student feedback, avoiding the use of 2,400 pieces of paper at its recent careers fair. It also encouraged employers to bring a travel mug and provided food in compostable packaging.
  7. Newcastle University created its own sustainability policy in 2017, which included a waste minimisation strategy, maintaining a high recycling rate, implementing sustainable construction methods and minimising water usage.
  8. The University of Dundee has its own web-based portal called Warp-it, which re-homes used furniture with new owners, so avoiding landfill.
  9. Aberdeen University encourages its staff and students to donate their damaged electrical goods for recycling. The university has also signed up to Scotland’s Zero Waste Plan.
  10. Manchester Metropolitan University’s carbon-literacy scheme trains students in tackling climate change and has been recognised by the United Nations as one of 100 worldwide Transformative Action Programmes.

You might also like: University of Warwick increases hospitality for sustainability

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