Aude queries how universities will afford government’s net-zero targets

The Department for Education’s new sustainability strategy for education is a good statement of ambitions, say university estate directors – but omits mention of the likely price tag.

The Association of University Directors of Estates (Aude) has welcomed the government’s net-zero ambitions for the education sector, set out in a strategy published yesterday, but questioned how higher education could foot the likely bill.

Yesterday, the Department for Education (DfE) published its sustainability and climate change strategy for the education and children’s services systems, vowing that education estates will target net-zero emissions and be more sustainable, climate resilient and closer to nature.

The strategy covers the next eight years, with an aspiration to be “the world-leading education sector in sustainability and climate change by 2030″.

By the end of 2023, the government wants the education sector across England to reduce emissions by 50% compared to 2017 levels, with a total 75% reduction by December 2037. From 2025, the DfE will publish targets and institutional progress for the English FE and HE sectors.

As well as reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, the DfE strategy urges university leaders to prepare estates for climate change, including more frequent extreme weather events. The strategy also wants education estates to improve biodiversity, air quality and proximity to nature.

Aude leaders welcomed the goals but questioned how universities could afford the price tag. The University of Birmingham is the first UK institution to calculate that the cost of its net-zero campus transition alone will amount to £300m. Aude extrapolates that the net-zero HE campus transition could cost billions of pounds. The group warned the DfE strategy is too geared towards schools.

The DfE is funding a several organisations – including Aude, sustainability charity EAUC and Universities UK – to develop a tool for HE providers to calculate the cost of net-zero works, which is set for launch later this year. By 2024, a separate FE and HE sector-led review will produce a standard framework for tracking emission to help institutions compare progress.

Jane White, Aude executive director, said: “In a new government strategy that is focused heavily towards schools, the part of the discussion that has so far been missing is the question of cost, and how to pay for the upgrades that are needed to make our campuses net zero carbon.”

Universities seek “to develop, test and share ideas across the public and private spheres” and “match the expectations of their students for fast and effective action” but there exists “some degree of fear as to the price tag attached”, she said.

“It’s clear that the overall cost to the university estate of achieving net zero will run into many billions of pounds, and there isn’t yet the acknowledgement of that never mind the funding needed to achieve it,” White continued.

“One very positive step forward is that by the end of this year and in collaboration with the EAUC, UUK and BUFDG, and with part-funding from the DfE, and delivery from Energise, we’ll be launching a tool to help universities calculate their projected costs for getting to net zero.”

Addressing ministers, White asked: “Perhaps when we have a scientifically calculated total price tag for this work, we’ll be able to focus more on paying for it?”

This year, the DfE and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) will open the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme to education instiutions. From next year, the DfE wants all bids for capital funding from HE to align with net-zero targets.

Perhaps when we have a scientifically calculated total price tag for this work, we’ll be able to focus more on paying for it
– Jane White, Aude

A survey of university directors of estates, published by Aude last year, indicates planning to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions has “barely started” at a quarter of UK higher education institutions.

Andrew Nolan, director of sustainability at the University of Nottingham and Aude’s sustainability lead, said: “As across the rest of the public sector, universities are thinking hard about embodied carbon, and shifting towards refurbishment of campus buildings – often a better option than new-build in terms of environmental impact.

“Whether on recycling, student involvement and engagement, energy supply or any other aspect of the huge task we face, UK universities are fully engaged communities on the sustainability and climate change agenda.”

Roddy Yarr, executive lead for sustainability at the University of Strathclyde, whose institution has a separate 2045 net-zero target set for it by Holyrood, says all UK universities could utilise the Aude Sustainability Leadership Scorecard (SLS).

The SLS is structured round the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and “provides an easy ready-made structure for us all to use in applying our own thinking”, said Yarr. “The ability to benchmark against similar institutions is an enormously useful feature of the SLS. The tool provides a structure for reaching out to other universities or to third parties, to ask for ideas and input. It’s the best structure we have in HE and FE for thinking about these issues,” he added. A record number sought an award from the SLS in 2020.

EAUC and Aude publish an SLS annual report that “acts as a kind of ‘state of the nation’ snapshot of where we collectively stand on this endeavour”, Yarr continued.

The most recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) suggest carbon dioxide emissions from UK universities dropped 10% in the year to July 2020 – but the number of institutions opting out of publishing their environmental data has risen.


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