The sustainability stress test

Has the pandemic thrown universities off course from their sustainability goals? Cathy Parnham takes a look to see what’s been going on

Life before lockdown… the phrase is becoming a bit of a cliché but it clearly marks how normal existence seemingly went on hold on 23 March.

It was only at the end of February that Greta Thunberg led over 15,000 environmental activists and campaigners through UB’s hometown of Bristol, continuing her quest of making climate change centre stage.

All now seems to have gone quiet.

While we may feel in limbo on a personal level, how has ‘the virus’ affected our wider HE strategies? Particularly regarding what is our greatest challenge ever: saving our planet? Have universities drifted off course from their individual sustainability goals – or has this remote time given us a chance to pause, to re-evaluate – or even to surpass expectation?

Major challenges

While there are clear benefits we have all witnessed, especially in terms of the reduction in emissions and pollutions, the pandemic, it seems, has created the chance to stress test universities’ sustainability strategies.

We’ve seen… universities supporting their local communities. This has included food donations or staff using their skills to cook meals for charities and the NHS – Mike Haslin, TUCO

As Andrew Troop of renewable energy company Engie, points out: “Universities have already taken significant steps towards emissions reduction and sustainable development; however, the pandemic provides a clear opportunity to embed new innovative working practices and fast-track zero carbon transition.”

Troop adds: “Through the experience of our investment sustainability partnerships and academic collaboration with US universities, improved energy independence not only supports long-term contingency planning to mitigate risks related to the changing environment and energy availability, but drives financial savings and unlocks new revenue opportunities.”

Mike Haslin, CEO, The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO), believes that the pandemic has actually shifted the sustainability focus even “higher up the agenda”, while major challenges “such as sourcing sustainable palm oil, local sourcing, packaging and wastage remain the same”.

Local sourcing is essential in the quest to reduce packaging and waste, as is “finding a sustainable palm oil source and balancing this against value for money and food security”, adds Haslin.

TUCO is very much forging ahead with its procurement strategy; Haslin tells us: “We’re working with the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) to create a group accreditation for our members and working with suppliers to better identify products containing sustainable palm oil. It’s worth noting that over 80% of our agreements are with SMEs and micro-enterprises. We are also working with WRAP [a charity that works with governments, businesses and communities to deliver practical solutions to improve resource efficiency] and the supply chain to minimise packaging.”

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon meets student nurses at UWS

Changes for the better?

So, while challenges may stay the same and sustainability innovation continues, we are at a unique moment in time when communities are pulling together, with local support networks in place – this is also evident within the higher education sector.

Haslin comments: “We’ve seen… universities supporting their local communities. This has included food donations or staff using their skills to cook meals for charities and the NHS.”

Of course, there are sticking points – and some initiatives simply have to be put on hold, says Haslin, until “the timing is right”. And, for TUCO, “These include further development of our greenhouse gas calculator, TUCO sustainability accreditation for members and the RSPO group accreditation.”

Case study: University of the West of Scotland

Professor Craig Mahoney, principal and vice-chancellor, shares UWS’s sustainability successes, sticking points and ambitions

Q. How is the HE sector addressing today’s many major sustainability challenges?

Huge strides have been taken across the sector. At UWS, in our last Corporate Strategy, we set ourselves the target of reducing our CO₂e emissions by 20% by 2020 – we’ve more than doubled this, with a reduction of 42%.

This demonstrates achievement of our bold ambition for sustainability, showcased by our carbon neutral for energy Lanarkshire Campus. The UWS Strategy 2025 is bolder still, with a target of carbon neutral by 2050.

Now more than ever, our students are demanding change and action in terms of our environmental impact, and at UWS – and across the sector – we are listening. In the last year, we won a Green Gown Award for our sustainability progress and a Guardian Award for our sustainability-inspired Lanarkshire Campus.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have provided a focus for the sector as we ensure social and economic sustainability are embedded into everything we do alongside safeguarding our environment.

Q. In the current pandemic, has sustainability fallen to the bottom of the list of priorities?

All aspects of sustainability, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, will always be high on the list of priorities at UWS.

As part of lockdown, we have worked hard to ensure our campus carbon emissions were minimised as the majority of UWS staff and students transitioned to remote working.

We have also encouraged staff to participate in the UWS Cycle to Work scheme to gain access to a bike, which can become part of their daily exercise routine, and be used as a sustainable way to commute when the time comes to transition back to campus.

In May, we published our Sustainability Annual Report, highlighting achievements and good news stories through our staff communication channels to maintain engagement and ensure that sustainability is still on people’s minds while they work remotely. We also celebrate the achievements of our Sustainability Action teams and their success in the NUS Green Impact Awards – the latest sustainability-themed award.

Public health is a real focus of the Sustainability Goals, and the university has been working closely with the NHS and other frontline services during this time. Colleagues have been using our 3D printing equipment to produce visors. We’ve donated beds from our training wards and venepuncture arms to assist with training in cannulation and IV insertion. Our researchers have also been working on projects including the creation of infrared sensors for contactless thermometers and face masks for the public.

Q. Are there any key areas of your sustainability strategy that have been severely affected?

The greatest challenge will be to sustainable travel when we transition back to campus, if this happens during the pandemic. We will need strategies to support staff to travel safely; this may include avoiding public transport and car sharing or using our fleet of electric vehicles for intercampus travel. We hope to mitigate this via active travel, encouraging walking and cycling to campus, where possible, and through continued use of remote working technology and video calls to reduce the need to travel.

Q. What do you think will be the impact of the pandemic on sustainability goals over the next 12 months or so?

There will be an unprecedented reduction in direct carbon emissions across the sector in 2020. Without the need to heat and light the majority of our energy-hungry buildings, without travel to campus and without emissions from waste and water, we will have a lull in emissions. Some of these emissions will be transferred elsewhere, to people’s homes, and some will be a true reduction in emissions.

Although we are not physically on campus at the moment, this does not dampen our ambition and we continue to work hard to plan and implement our goals.

Q. And how will UWS adapt its strategy to achieve its goals?

Working remotely has encouraged us to reconsider all our activities and this has included a review of our sustainability plans. As with all plans, wide consultation between students, staff and external stakeholders will inform our thinking on any new activity.

When we return to campuses, the way we use our facilities, the way we teach, research and provide support services will require new paradigms and these are being carefully prepared to ensure UWS is a ‘safe campus’, and is well prepared to provide a clear sustainability vision for the next five years.

The pandemic reinforces the need to look after our environmental, social and financial sustainability.

The United Nations SDGs will be the anchor to guide activity – there has never been a more important time to work in partnership with local and global communities to achieve these goals.

For the University of Winchester, the pandemic also does not seem to be putting sustainability on the backburner…

Mat Jane, head of environment and building services, tells us: “Some of our sustainability goals have now become more challenging, with the coronavirus pandemic making them more difficult to achieve within target timescales. However, our carbon emissions have reduced significantly during the lockdown.

… the pandemic provides a clear opportunity to embed new innovative working practices and fast-track zero carbon transition – Andrew Troop, Engie

“The next challenge is to decide what part offsetting may play in achieving net zero carbon emissions. There are other decisions to be made about how we power our campuses and the buildings we put up. All our electricity and almost 60% of our gas comes from renewable sources; none of our waste goes to landfill and our recycling rate is 60%.”

Salix Finance offers support to HEIs post COVID-19

Salix Finance has worked with universities since 2006 and offered £156m of interest-free funding invested in over 4,200 energy-efficiency projects at 100 higher education institutions.

Laura Couldrey, programme manager for the England Universities team, said: “Here at Salix, we are helping universities become more energy efficient as part of our plan to help HEIs and local economies recover post Covid-19.’”

The Salix interest-free funding includes technologies such as solar PV, LED lighting upgrades, fume cupboard controls, building energy management systems (BEMS), laboratory upgrades and measures within new-build developments.

“Our support towards HEIs will include strategies focusing on the value of energy efficiency and retrofitting higher education estates,” added Laura. “Achieving better energy efficiency will help increase savings when buildings reopen, with funding available throughout the year. HEIs will be able to reduce their energy consumption and spend, as well as any associated taxes. The reduction of carbon emissions will also attract prospective students with climate-conscious values.”

Now more than ever, focusing on the UK’s 2050 net-zero carbon target is an opportunity for HEIs to represent the education sector’s impact and help their business after the pandemic.


So, it’s not that sustainability has been put to the bottom of the pile. It seems that the pandemic has, in fact, put more of a focus and emphasis on sustainability, within the higher education and the world at large and more conversations are happening. Some new opportunities and ways of working have been thrust forward while other initiatives simply have to move down the queue.

Says Troop: “In the UK, post-lockdown, we are seeing increased demand for safety compliance, externals and cladding programmes from clients. In addition, with the combustible cladding ban likely to be lowered from 18m to 11m (four-storey buildings) when legislation is presented to parliament in October, we are discussing with partners the opportunity to deep-retrofit these buildings to reduce energy consumption and future-proof their stock.”

Meanwhile, the University of Winchester is pushing ahead with its ambitious sustainability targets and, Jane tells us, it wants to be net zero by 2025 – it has already “achieved a 57% reduction relative to the size of the estate against a 30% target”.

And, as I write, just as some of the restrictions are easing, one cannot help but hope that there can only be changes for the better in terms of the environment. We can all see the benefit less traffic on the road and in the air has had on our own environments.

As Professor Craig Mahoney, principal and vice-chancellor at University of the West of Scotland, points out: “Across all industries, lockdown has meant that fewer people are commuting to and from work – and the environmental impact as a result has been huge. It has made us all push ourselves in terms of adapting to new technology and new means of delivery – and these are things which I hope we will continue to offer when campus-based learning returns to normal, as well as devising new forms of efficiency and effectiveness that enhance the learning, research and innovation that UWS offers.”

Across all industries, lockdown has meant that fewer people are commuting to and from work – and the environmental impact has been huge – Craig Mahoney, UWS

As well as home working, many of us have had to shop local and, in so doing, supported our local industries and reduced our own carbon footprints. Can we keep sustainability centre-stage and find a better way of working, both within HE and the world at large?

Haslin concludes that: “In such uncertain times it is difficult to predict, accurately, almost anything, but I believe sustainability will be even more important in the future [and] with particular regard to food security, local sourcing and food and packaging wastage.”

In focus: University of Winchester

Mark and Carole Parkes share some of the key achievements of the ‘University for Sustainability and Social Justice’

Recognised for its pioneering work in sustainability and social justice, Winchester’s focus on the wellbeing of students, staff and visitors as a key driver alongside sustainable development is innovative.
Its flagship West Downs Centre development is one of the first university projects in the UK to be registered to pursue WELL Certification, an accreditation scheme that recognises buildings that support and advance human health and wellbeing.

And with features such as combined heat and power plant, heat recovery systems, solar photovoltaic panels, rainwater harvesting, green roof and bat and bird boxes to promote biodiversity it’s easy to see why. The building is set to achieve the ‘Excellent’ rating of the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) – the benchmark standard for the construction of environmentally sustainable buildings in the UK.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

Teaching and learning across the institution also have a strong focus on sustainability, and Winchester’s commitment to embedding sustainability and social responsibility in its teaching and other activities saw it awarded the National Union of Students’ (NUS) Responsible Futures accreditation in 2019.

The award recognises the partnership between the university and Winchester Student Union to promote education for sustainable development, helping students to understand the sustainability and social justice challenges facing society and preparing them to become globally responsible citizens.

Winchester’s pioneering activities in sustainability education include the Climate Change Education Strategy, which commits the university to ensuring all students graduate with an understanding of how climate change is relevant to their subject area and their everyday lives and how they can address the challenges it presents.

It has recently been accepted as members of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). SDSN was launched in 2012 by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to mobilise global scientific and technological expertise to promote practical problem-solving for sustainable development and implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Mark Butt is major capital project manager and Carole Parkes is professor of global issues and responsible management at University of Winchester Business School

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