Everyone’s at it

Larry Day looks at some of UK HE’s environmental champions and finds out how they are leading the way for sustainability

The continual rise in universities implementing rigorous green policies proves that it isn’t some fad, but rather an integral part of university life. Last year saw universities across the board slash carbon emissions by 3.6%. This might not seem like much, but given that it’s almost doubling the Carbon Trust’s target of 2% per year, it’s not half bad at all.

Building on that, 44% of UK universities have committed to sustainable development across the board, for both staff and students. Dozens of awards from local to international level promote green advances, like the People & Planet University League, the EAUC’s Green Gown Award, NUS Green Impact, EcoCampus, Gold Green Apple, and the Sound Environmental Impact Awards. Over the years, being environmentally conscious has transcended being a ‘phase’, and forged its own path in daily routines for both staff and students.

Although there are a great many initiatives and schemes on a national level, and obvious things – like recycling – are carried out by a majority of universities, there are also those who are forging an enlightened path; pioneers in green living for both staff and students are becoming increasingly common, and it looks like we will soon see a carbon neutral establishment in St. Andrew’s University. This is not only helping protect the environment, but it’s saving heaps of money too – which can then be invested in better teaching and research facilities.

Championing green changes

Nottingham Trent University (NTU) is one of a number of leaders in championing green changes – it’s deservedly placed fourth on the People & Planet rankings (an independent league table “ranked by environmental and ethical performance”). Sarah Robertson, one of NTU’s Environmental Projects Officers, said that the main targets were “ambitious” reductions in the size of their carbon footprint, and they’ve been achieving this with a variety of grassroots changes, including the wildly successful Ucycle scheme.

Costing only £35 per year, staff and students can hire a bicycle to cut down on using their own cars or public transport. Now in its fifth year, Robertson says that the scheme is “part of the university culture on all three campuses”. Although initial take-up when it was launched was “disappointingly low”, it’s exploded in popularity, so much so that they’ve had to significantly increase the fleet. Additionally, a new Bike Hub has recently opened on their city site offering low cost bike servicing for any bike, not just those from the hire scheme, as well as free maintenance classes for students and staff.

In some part due to the costs being recuperated in the long term with yearly revenue, it’s become a self-sufficient way to ‘go green’, and that’s really where NTU has broken ground. Now that it’s a sustainable scheme, the University can reinvest in other green initiatives, or put the money back into the university. To emphasise this, NTU use social media and open days to push their green reputation to prospective and existing students. Speaking to the University, it’s abundantly clear that they are proud of the results, and for good reason – it’s not just changing the face of the University, but the local community as well.

Improving existing facilities

The University of Reading is another place that’s boosting cycling to cut its carbon footprint, adopting the local council’s ReadyBike programme. However, this isn’t their only focus. Reading has a set of energy saving initiatives, started in 2011, aimed at reducing carbon emissions by 45% in 2020, and 35% by 2016. This doesn’t just apply to energy itself, but also water, travel and waste. The University’s Energy Manager, Dan Fernbank, explained that: “The University’s Carbon Management Plan set out the business case for investment in energy efficiency; identifying £3.5m investment could return cumulative savings of £18.5m over the five-year programme.”

To achieve these targets, Reading has invested in improving existing facilities’ efficiency alongside some significant estate changes. This includes, but isn’t limited to “replacement of ageing halls of residence and our brand new district heating system… a major programme of insulation improvements, lighting upgrades, IT server room efficiencies and improved building controls…” – expensive in the short term, but if the University’s calculations are correct, they can save bundles in the future. As it stands, Fernbank believes that they are on track to hit that 35% target. In 2014, they’d achieved a 23% drop in emissions (saving £8.5m), and reports suggest that the 35% remains within the University’s grasp.

He also describes the feedback and uptake of both staff and students as “encouraging”, highlighting two cases in particular: “Around 100 volunteers gave up one Friday night in November to take part in our first NUS-backed ‘Blackout’ event; getting teams of students led by staff volunteers to audit buildings out of hours, identifying and turning off unnecessary equipment.” Like Nottingham Trent, Reading use social media as a tool to promote new changes, with a focus currently on their Carbon Countdown campaign in the build up to their July 2016 target deadline. “It’s been a real learning curve,” he added. “Some projects have been surprising in how much they have saved; £88,000 annual saving from upgrading the ventilation and controls to 44 fume cupboards across two Chemistry laboratories was particularly encouraging.”

Energy-hungry

Another energy-hungry element of universities is a big one: temperature control. In winter when the degrees plummet below zero, and in summer when they soar above the heady highs of… nine, if we’re lucky… it’s important that students and staff are able to work in a comfortable workplace. Anglia Ruskin University is one of 10 universities benefitting from £1.45m in loans from the HEFCE Revolving Green Fund (“recoverable grants to help higher education institutions in England reduce emissions”) to help develop a heating and power energy network on their Cambridge campus.

In short, the project aims to “generate heat to be distributed around the campus via a new pipe network, and at the same time generate electricity to be used on campus,” Simon Chubb, the University’s Environment Manager says. They will achieve this by using gas to power a new retrofitted pipe system, as opposed to electricity; this may seem counterproductive, but with electricity prices skyrocketing (rising three times higher than gas), Anglia Ruskin looks to save over a quarter of a million pounds per year. Not only that, but the carbon intensity levels of gas are about a third of electricity’s, so the university will also reduce the campus’ carbon footprint by approximately 22% (a reduction of 740 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year).

As well as this centrepiece project, Anglia Ruskin has also been running their ‘Green Love’ programme, which is a social media campaign to “engage staff and students in achieving our environmental policy objectives related to energy and water efficiency, waste minimisation, sustainable travel, biodiversity and Fairtrade.”

It first ran in 2013/14, and saw “robust” strategies and targeted approaches to promote the “pro-environmental behaviours” that Anglia Ruskin sought to adopt. As well as monthly competitions, and a push for cycling, the Business School also got involved, with marketing students evaluating the data to further their own experience with social media, as well as assessing the effectiveness and development of Green Love as a whole. As you might expect, the University found that activities or particular drives that were seen as fun or hands-on, or even that promoted a sense of wellbeing, were the ones that were most successful.

Although Nottingham Trent, Reading and Anglia Ruskin all have some majorly impressive tactics to help reduce the environmental impact of the university, many other places across the UK have lofty goals too. It’s not a niche thing any longer, and the more that students and staff are aware of the projects – as the three examples above prove – the better they work. Social media plays a vital role, and it’s easier than ever to organise events or to rally around a cause.

Going Green is not something strictly limited to universities, of course, but it is especially important in educational establishments; these are places that lead the nation in advanced thinking, research and discovery, and shape the best and brightest of the UK’s youth. It matters considerably more in universities that students’ minds are imbued with environmentally conscious ideas, so that they may go on to help solve some of the biggest issues facing the planet.

If your university is running a great sustainability initiative, why not tell us all about it. Email the editor: rebecca.paddick@wildfirecomms.co.uk 

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