University carbon emissions and energy usage falls

Carbon dioxide emissions fell from 1.7 million to 1.6 million tonnes between 2017/18 and 2018/19

There was a fall in energy consumption and carbon emissions across the higher education sector for 2018/19, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa).

The latest estates management data shows that between 2017/18 and 2018/19 energy consumption fell from 7.4 to 7.3 terawatt hours and carbon dioxide emissions fell from 1.7 million to 1.6 million tonnes.

Those HEPs that submitted data on waste management generated over 511,000 tonnes of waste, of which 72% was recycled and 11% was sent to landfill, with the remainder going to energy generation via incineration or anaerobic digestion.

This was the first year that English universities were not mandated to submit their figures for the estates management record (EMR), but all but one still made the optional submission. A spokesperson for the University of Birmingham said it had not submitted its data because it had “acted in line with the Office for Students’s (OfS) letter to institutions dated 25 March 2020 [which] set out reduced regulatory requirements during the Covid-19 outbreak”.

Fiona Goodwin, director of operations and planning at the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC), told University Business: “We have been vocal in our concern about the EMR data losing its mandate for English institutions, and we were keen to see if this would make a difference in the number of institutions that submitted EMR data this year.

“We are incredibly pleased to see that this has not had a huge impact, and despite difficult circumstances, all institutions but one was able to submit their EMR data for 2018/2019.

“This is testament to a sector that is taking sustainability incredibly seriously and leading the charge towards net zero.”

Ms Goodwin said that “despite a sizeable increase in total site area and an incremental increase in buildings owned by the higher education sector, there have been improvements in all of the areas we would want to see”, but cautioned that “more needs to be done to ensure the sector meets its targets”.

In particular, the EAUC said there was “an emerging good news story around travel and transport”, with fuel usage down 7% on last year, as well as the first recorded reduction in the number of car parking spaces at UK university campuses.

EAUC said the collective Hesa figures suggested HE staff were commuting more sustainably. The sustainability charity added that the change in working practices necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic meant “there is an opportunity to ensure rapid progression in this area”.

“We will support the sector to build back better from the pandemic, ensuring sustainability is at the heart of a just, clean and smart recovery,” Ms Goodwin said. “The EMR data is essential in ensuring the sector is being held accountable for its actions towards emissions reduction and sustainable development, as well as being transparent with both their staff and students. We will continue to lobby OfS to expand its support for the sector in England to ensure it reaches net zero as quickly as possible.”

The EAUC is leading a cross-sector group, which comprises the Association of Colleges, GuildHE and Universities UK, called the Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education Students and Leaders. The commission aims to lay out a blueprint for sustainability in universities and colleges and set targets for the sector.

The Hesa figures collected this year suggest some institutions have made significant reductions in carbon emissions since 2005. Of the 135 HEPs with a complete set of scope one and two carbon emissions data between 2005 and 2018, the average institutional reduction for the 14-year period stands at 24.9%.

Scope one and two carbon emissions refer to pollutants released as a direct result of onsite university activity. Scope three emissions refer to ‘hidden’ pollutants released offsite as an indirect consequence of a university’s activities, such as commuting, business travel, investments and leased assets.

Scope three emissions are harder to calculate because of the nature of the activities – for example, 66 universities collect data on carbon emitted by their staff commuting to and from campus and 88 collect data on carbon emission from staff air travel. EAUC said it was working with Hesa to develop robust scope three data for the sector.

According to Hesa figures, London Metropolitan University has overseen a 72% reduction in scope one and two carbon emissions in 14 years – the largest percentage saving of any HEP. The University of Gloucestershire and Manchester Metropolitan University have reduced scope one and two emissions by 53.3% and 51.2% respectively. Imperial College, which had the highest carbon emissions in 2005, has reduced its scope one and two carbon footprint from around 83 million kilograms to 55 million kilograms – a drop of 33.6%.

The figures also suggest that only two universities have increased their carbon emissions since 2015/16.

Academics have realised that with video conferencing they can meet and talk to colleagues around the world without needing to fly, so universities can look at reducing their scope three emissions more in the future
– Andy Nolan, AUDE

Andy Nolan, development and sustainability director at the University of Nottingham and chair of the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE), welcomed the reduction in carbon emissions across the sector but said the varying pace of change at different universities demonstrated the “need for leadership at the institution level”.

Commenting on his own university, Mr Nolan said electricity consumption had halved at Nottingham in the two months since lockdown and that universities would look closely in the future at how to “sweat assets more”.

“Universities will look at their estate and think, we’ve shown that with agile and flexible working is practical and that we don’t need to provide everybody with a desk or a cellar office five days a week. Academics have realised that with video conferencing they can meet and talk to colleagues around the world without needing to fly, so universities can look at reducing their scope three emissions more in the future.”

But he added that technology “cannot substitute for the physical learning experience of being back on campus” or “offer a remote learning experience that’s lab-based”.

“I think, therefore, the lockdown will mean in the future that there’ll be more blended learning.”

Asked if the financial challenges could pose a risk to environmental initiatives, the AUDE chair replied: “It is a risk but only really if an organisation takes a very short-sighted view of things. Cash flow is definitely going to be an issue for the next 12 to 24 months, and I would expect fewer investments in in large scale energy projects.

“But, equally, the estates we’re all running are huge and vital to our learning and research, so that infrastructure still needs investment. Environmental initiatives that offer financial saving are likely to be supported. Perhaps the ‘nice to dos’, that are harder to put a cash saving on, might drop off.”

Read more: University carbon emissions: NUS prompts Office for Students to reconsider its position

Related news: Sustainability at Keele University

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