Carbon emissions drop but fewer universities publish green data

Latest Hesa statistics suggest that carbon dioxide emissions dropped in 2019/20 but leading sector figures want data collection changes to properly account for hidden emissions

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

Of those 130 universities that submitted carbon emissions data, total principal emissions dropped 10% from 1.6 million tonnes in 2018/19 to 1.4m tonnes in 2019/20. This data set includes four months when the UK was in the first coronavirus lockdown.

The carbon emissions compiled by Hesa cover scope one and two emissions – in other words, those covering direct emissions from university estates and indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity and heating – and not scope three emissions, covering indirect emissions related to a university supply chain, investments, travel and waste.

A charity campaigning for universities to tackle their greenhouse gases is calling for major reform to the data collected on the environmental impact of universities, to better account for their actual emissions. The association that represents directors of university estates is also calling for reform to the calculation of emissions. A spokesperson for Hesa confirmed to University Business that no plans for reform were in the offing. Many scope three emissions are measured, but there are concerns about the statistical usability of these multiple data sets.

We are conducting a full review of the data set and will be consulting widely with stakeholders in a ‘blank sheet of paper’ spirit
– Jane White, Association of University Directors of Estates

Nevertheless, these Hesa figures have become more significant as growing numbers of universities pledge to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades. Nationally, the UK has passed legislation that targets an 80% reduction of emissions by 2035 compared to 1990 and a 100% reduction by 2050.

The figures reveal that, for many institutions, the bulk of these scope one and two emissions come from non-residential buildings and are from burning gas. At Edinburgh University, for example, which has the highest total scope one and two levels of any university, 63% of these principal emissions are from gas.

A recent survey by the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE) and Buro Happold found that removing gas-powered equipment from the estate was the most significant single step for most universities towards achieving net-zero. That report also revealed that a quarter of universities have “barely started” net-zero planning.

The Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education, a partnership between Universities UK (UUK), EAUC, GuildHE and the Association of Colleges (AoC), has recommended universities declare a climate emergency, and set “challenging targets” to reach net-zero emissions by 2030, or 2050 at the latest.

Decarbonising the national grid or generating more on-site renewables would also drastically reduce emissions at many universities; at Cambridge University, 60% of emissions come from grid electricity, but the university has plans to build solar parks at a revamped campus in the west of the city.

Emissions reduction at a time when many buildings had been closed due to the Covid-19 imposed are shockingly low. It suggests that much more is to be done to reduce building base loads
– Iain Patton, EAUC

The statistics show that non-residential energy consumption dwarfed residential energy consumption at nearly every university – at Aberdeen, the ratio was 1:4, at Imperial, the ratio was 1:9. The University of Bristol recently became the world’s first university to achieve 100% Green Lab certification. Laboratories have at least five times more environmental impact than office spaces, and Bristol’s laboratories account for 40% of energy consumption, despite only occupying 6% of the estate. Of the 20 universities with the highest scope one and two emissions, all are either Russell Group or, in the case of Strathclyde, Aberdeen, are research-intensive universities. The figures underpin the importance of greening research.

Of those that submitted data for 2019/20, HE institutions consumed a total of 6.6 Terawatt hours of energy during the year – a reduction of 7% on the previous year for the same group last year. A breakdown of energy consumption shows an 8% decrease in non-residential consumption and a 1% increase in residential consumption.

The figures from Hesa do not cover all universities in the UK, as some 30 institutions declined to submit their emissions figures, meaning the recorded decline in emissions only covers those institutions that submitted data for both years. The figure represents the highest number of opt-outs since the estates management record (EMR) became optional. Those universities included several well-known institutions, including Birmingham, Sussex, Gloucestershire, Sunderland and London South Bank. The Office for Students (OfS) told universities they could suspend most data submissions during the pandemic.

Despite this OfS allowance, the chief executive of The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC), Iain Patton, said he was “disappointed to see many more institutions opting out of the now voluntary EMR data reporting”, which provides a “collectively useful” data set. “We are concerned institutions had opted not to continue reporting and that made it harder to monitor trends and would like to reinforce how important is to see the Hesa data expanded to include a more comprehensive set of emissions sources for the sector,” he added.

Patton expressed surprise that emissions reduced so little “at a time when many buildings had been closed”. The figures suggest, he said, “that much more is to be done to reduce building base loads”.

He continued: “We are yet to fully acknowledge how home working will reduce the ability to assess the environmental impact as the digital technology and environmental management systems can do that. More so, those emissions should be reported by institutions – recently the Scottish Government and the Sustainable Scotland Network (Scotland’s public sector network on sustainability and climate change) have included them in this year’s Public Bodies Climate Change Duties reporting requirements, so this could be a solution that should be employed nationally.

“We believe the EMR is due an update as the consumption, generation and emission profile of institutions is now very complex, and the current reporting requirements only include a limited number of emission categories. Our SBTi (Science Based Targets) Alignment project starting soon is looking to address that and to ensure institutions’ reductions are actually in line with the 1.5°C Paris Agreement pledge.”

AUDE has also encouraged universities to continue submitting data to the EMR. It uses the Hesa data to compile its annual report on the environmental impact of universities, this year due in December.

Jane White, executive director of AUDE, said: “AUDE will publish our annual Estates Management Report (EMR) based on Hesa data in the run-up to Christmas this year. The task of analysing that data is being carried out now. This data set will include the first months of the pandemic and will give us early indicators of the way Covid-19 has impacted on our university estates.

“In liaison with Jisc and Hesa and led by our EMR steering group of university estates directors, we are conducting a full review of the data set and will be consulting widely with stakeholders in a ‘blank sheet of paper’ spirit. It’s so important that we can evidence the sector’s net-zero carbon journey as just one of the things this dataset allows us to do.”

Read more: Improve sustainability teaching and cut emissions, UCU and NUS tell universities

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