The government’s current plans to meet legal air quality requirements have been ruled “unlawful”. The Committee on Climate Change reported on January 18 that there “remains a gap in meeting the fourth and fifth carbon budgets” of 51% reduction by 2025 and 57% by 2030.
These are legally binding obligations and the impact of not achieving these targets could be in the form of successful legal action – which has already started internationally and in the UK.
The higher education sector has a significant part to play in supporting the UK meeting these goals and has a target to reduce its own carbon emissions by 43% by 2020. This is managed by HEFCE, which requires each institution to have a bespoke target based on a baseline 2005 figure, recognising the different position and progress of each provider. The HEFCE website states “The collective impact of institutional targets is a 38 percent reduction between 2005 and 2020. This is slightly lower than the sector-level target, but demonstrates the commitment of the sector to reducing emissions.”
However, there are no financial penalties for not meeting targets and over the years the funding available to institutions for reducing the carbon footprint has reduced. Environmental sustainability no longer appeared as a priority in HEFCE’s grant letter from BIS from 2014. And now higher education sits under the Department for Education, the direct link to green sustainability policy within government is reduced. Funding such as the Sustainable Development Framework and the Revolving Green fund (last offered in 2015) no longer exists, although their legacy continues in the form of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC). On a regulatory front, the Office for Students, who will replace the functions of HEFCE on 1st April, has outlined it will not be a policy body but a market regulator – with no mention of environmental sustainability.
Is the higher education sector missing out on a key opportunity to lead the way?
No other sector has such a direct impact on our young people. Higher education can take the lead, especially on reducing the consumption of fossil fuels, with new campus investments being ideally placed to consider community ground source heat pumps or even more radical new renewable generation secured through power contracts. Increasingly diverse storage solutions and technology, developed by many in the sector, offers an opportunity to capture cheap renewable energy and use it when needed on campus.
Sustainability is increasingly in focus across society as a whole. Leading in this space offers competitive global advantage. Some of the wider policy developments in and around the sector has the potential to refocus this agenda:
- Strong governance: The OfS will have a renewed focus on governance, with on of the conditions of registration is to have “adequate and effective’ governance which adheres to”public interest principles”. In 2015, the CUC, LFHE and EAUC produced a document about how to build resilience for University governors.
- Value for money and reducing costs: In 2015, a UUK report outlined that a more competitive environment in the HE sector has driven greater efficiency in universities. This has seen an intensification in the use of estates, such as 24 hour libraries, without increasing energy consumption.
- Civic Anchors: Following the Brexit vote, institutions have been under increased pressure to revisit their civic missions in their local area and drive regional development. The recent Industrial Strategy outlined ‘places’ as one of the key foundations of productivity, with specific focus on intra-city transport.
- Public availability of data: As institutions are required to make their Carbon emissions plans and data publicly available we have seen a growth a number of awards and league tables, such as the Green Gown Awards, People and Planet Green Awards and UI Green Metrics. Regardless of your view of their methodologies, league tables are known for their influence in the sector.
Lower costs and lower emissions anyone?
Emissions are split into three different sub-groups:
- Scope 1 – Direct Greenhouse Gasses (GHG) or “emissions from sources that are owned or controlled by the organisation”
- Scope 2 – Energy Indirect GHG or ” emissions from the consumption of purchased electricity or other sources of energy generated upstream from the organisation”
- Scope 3 – Other Indirect GHG or “emissions that are a consequence of the operations of an organisation, but are not directly owned or controlled by the organisation”
Within Scope 1, have you moved toward making it easier to walk and cycle around campus? Switching from oil powered heating to gas, to biomass or more radically ground source heat pumps or developing combined heat and power grids with local businesses are all key step changes.
Scope 2 offers significant opportunities, not just to reduce emissions, but to drive real savings for the sector.
- Ground source heat pumps are increasingly being used for new developments and in particular have been recognised for how they can work to reduce fuel poverty through significant cost savings. In some cases demand for electricity and gas has been reduced by up to 75% with savings passed directly onto the users.
- Renewable energy is now the cheapest form of new generation, using power purchase contracts to support the development of new renewable power generation could materially help reduce emissions across the sector and save money.
Scope 3 is where there is real potential for the sector broaden ownership of sustainability agenda. Opportunities exist across institutions and more strategic approaches could be beneficial.
- Research and knowledge exchange with suppliers, they are also working with other customers to reduce their emissions
- Public/regional engagement, partnership with cities and local businesses for local grids of heat and electricity
- Learning and teaching, particularly around consumption reduction: plastic, through clothing and the full range of the circular economy. Businesses, communities and individuals will thrive where they can develop industry and societies that have the lowest environmental impact. Early indications show that profitability actually improves and brand loyalty increases where sustainability is a core ethos
- Estates, taking best practice ideas and developing them in different institutions in different parts of the country and world, this is a global opportunity
- Finances – significant financing available to support sustainability and institutions can access this through offtake contracts such as for power, but also across a range of suppliers
2020 is almost upon us. Starting now with plans for 2025 means there is little room for delay, but never has there been a better time to take advantage of the advances in technology to reduce the overall consumption and emissions of your institutions – from installing smart LED lighting and heating systems to “behind the meter” storage through to getting new renewable power built to make all energy consumed green.
Only a few years ago going green was the right thing to do, but it came at a cost. Today, not going green is a waste of energy and money.