Quarter of universities ‘barely started’ net-zero planning, survey suggests

The survey suggests that finances remain the biggest obstacle to reaching net-zero greenhouse emissions – but resistance to change and uncertain market conditions were also cited as significant barriers

A survey of university estates directors in the UK indicates planning to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions has “barely started” at a quarter of higher education institutions.

New research conducted by the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE) and engineering consultants Buro Happold suggests 23% of universities in the UK are ill-prepared “and need assistance” with net-zero planning. Pollsters spoke to directors of estates at 148 higher education institutions in the UK, representing roughly 87% of AUDE members.

The number of universities seemingly without a detailed plan outnumbers the 15% of those that report being “well on the way” to a net-zero future. The remaining 63% – roughly equivalent to 93 universities – report that plans are still “coming together”.

Asked what long-term change they would most like to see, the plurality (30%) of estates directors said zero-carbon emissions and sustainability. According to those surveyed, replacing gas-fuelled appliances and equipment with cleaner alternatives is the most significant change universities need to make, with 81% listing it as one of their top three priorities. The survey suggests the other “big steps” needed for a net-zero campus were changes in behaviour, a smaller estate and clear leadership within the university.

The survey suggests that finances (53%) remain the biggest obstacle to change – but resistance to change (41%) and uncertain market conditions (36%) were also frequently cited.

Jane White, AUDE executive director, warned that around half of emissions from university estates comes from natural gas usage, making the significance of its removal to a net-zero future “no surprise”.

“Investment in alternative low carbon heat sources such as air, ground or water source heat pumps, as well as biomass/biogas solutions and potentially hydrogen are firmly on the radar amongst university estates leaders,” she explained.

Keele and Nottingham were pioneering “great work in this area”, she added.

But White cautioned – on the day a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on global climate change warned of a “code red for humanity” – that there were many impediments for university directors of estates.

“[T]here are clear barriers too, including a lack of technical, political and economic certainty; general budget restraints mixed with a lack of clarity over the extent of investment needed; conflicting organisational priorities and organisational inertia, amongst others. Finding the affordable path to net-zero remains a huge challenge, but it is one that our university estates teams are actively and urgently engaged upon,” she said.

Much has already been written about what the future of learning may look like, but there has been little evidence gathered from students and staff as to how they see the future challenges and how the physical environment can enable this
– Dr Mike Entwisle, Buro Happold

Sixty-four per cent of those surveyed thought the change in teaching and learning requirements was the most significant long-term change for university estates – with the increasing demand for data and “smart campus” tools a close second. A quarter of respondents reported that their university was “struggling” to prepare for a “data-driven” future. Not a single respondent thought their university was “well-equipped” for this emerging revolution.

Dr Mike Entwisle, project principal at Buro Happold, said: “Much has already been written about what the future of learning may look like, but there has been little evidence gathered from students and staff as to how they see the future challenges and how the physical environment can enable this.”

Said Dr Entwisle: “Reusing existing assets and intensifying their use can play an important part in the commitments many universities have made to zero-carbon operation and can also reduce embodied carbon – improving buildings and campuses can benefit everyone and often provide exceptional value. We are also turning our attention to emissions beyond the built environment, with staff and student travel being key issues in many institutions

“With universities reassessing how they use space and evaluating opportunities to improve both efficiency and effectiveness, now is the time to look to a different future, where the physical estate is used to bring people together to discuss, debate, socialise, learn, and simply ’be’ together – as well as being prepared for a net-zero and data-driven future. This survey has provided invaluable evidence as to how estates teams are responding to the challenges of the coming years; those that rise to these challenges will have a bright future.”

The survey comes seven months after a coalition of sector bodies published the Climate Action Toolkit for the Higher Education Sector, which urged them to declare a climate emergency and set “challenging targets” to reach net-zero emissions by 2030, or 2050, at the latest.


Read more: Sustainability in education: Advance HE and QAA publish new guidance

Related news: Improve sustainability teaching and cut emissions, UCU and NUS tell universities

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