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Accelerating the sector’s journey to net zero

Higher and further education providers urgently need to get better at measuring and reporting their carbon footprint. EAUC interim chief executive Fiona Goodwin introduces a new standardised carbon emissions framework.

Fiona Goodwin is interim CEO at EAUC.

Finally, we have a way forward for robust and transparent carbon reporting in higher education.

Today a new Standardised Carbon Emissions Framework (SCEF) for universities and colleges has been launched by the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), enabling institutions to measure, report and manage their carbon emissions.

Launched alongside is a far-reaching report on Accelerating towards Net Zero and for the first time it provides an estimate of the sector’s carbon footprint to be 18.1 Mt CO2e, with HE institutions contributing approximately 86 per cent of this, and FE 12 per cent.

Recent surveys show that institutions need to take their carbon as seriously as their teaching and research — more than 2.5 million 7-17-year-olds want more climate education and 91 per cent of 6,000 surveyed students agree that their place of study should actively incorporate and promote sustainable development.

And 74 per cent of international students (from outside the EU) say how seriously the university/college takes global development issues and environmental issues (69 per cent) is most likely to influence their choice of institution. So, if you want to increase your student numbers – get reporting.

Why this? Why now?

Educational institutions must take the lead – listening to their scientists and academics to ensure accurate emissions reporting that reflects the institutions’ footprint and their progress toward net zero. Without clear and consistent reporting how can we measure progress? With increasing demand from research funders to report and measure carbon emissions it is clear universities and colleges need to take their responsibility seriously.

As set out in the Department for Education (DfE) Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy, which aligns with the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and Net Zero Strategy, the education sector has a key part to play. Unless the carbon footprint of higher and further education can be measured, the UK government will be unable to meet net zero targets by 2050.

In the UK, schools, colleges and universities account for 36 per cent of total public sector building emissions. According to the DfE’s Strategy, universities and colleges in England will be asked to report their carbon emissions by 2024. (They have a lot of catching up to do with their peers in Scotland where reporting is already mandatory).

While many institutions already report, there is no agreed model across the UK that allows them to do so consistently. There was no standardised agreed framework prior to the SCEF – leaving staff, students and wider stakeholders unable to really understand and interrogate an institution’s plan to see meaningful actions and avoid risking their reputation with greenwash.

The UK government wants the education sector to be world leading on sustainability, however, there is still a significant gap in how we teach it. 74 per cent of further education educators have not received training to embed or educate, even though 94 per cent agree that all learners should be taught.

And the sector has to be at the heart of the skills agenda – so the government needs to support its policies by taking action in education. For example, the UK government has set a target to install 600,000 heat pumps by 2028 yet there are currently only 3,000 trained heat pump engineers in the UK. At least 27,000 will be needed in the next six years, requiring increases of 4,000-6,000 per year. Who will be training and upskilling these engineers?

Introducing the SCEF

The SCEF was created by EAUC – the alliance for sustainability leadership in education, with funding from the Department for Education. The SCEF was co-developed by the sector, along with 21 Queen’s Anniversary Prize-winners from further and higher education across the UK as part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Challenge.

It received sector-wide feedback through membership bodies such as Universities UK, the Association of Colleges, the British Universities Finance Directors Group, the Association of University Directors of Estates, GuildHE, and the Higher Education Statistics Agency. This ensured we utilised the expertise from the sector to help the sector. As education is a devolved matter, DfE is liaising with colleagues in the devolved nations with the hope of aligning to a UK-wide approach.

The Framework itself is based on the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol, which includes an interpretation of Scopes 1, 2 and 3 – so it ensures that universities and colleges are utilising a globally recognised framework. But what is different is that the framework interprets these and explains what they mean in a university or college setting in plain English – so you do not need to be a carbon reporting expert to start reporting. Institutions can no longer ignore or opt for which scopes to include – the Framework puts all institutions at a level playing field.

The Framework also recognises the different stages institutions are at – with some leading the way with a science-based target approach while others have yet to start reporting. Institutions can choose from three levels of reporting depending on their data sources.

The goal is to bring good practice and guidance to help institutions understand how they contribute to the climate emergency and take action. So SCEF has been developed specifically for the sector to allow all further and higher education institutions to measure, report, and manage carbon emissions. The objective is to increase transparency for staff and students, while also allowing institutions to compare and share experiences by enabling peer to peer review with other institutions.

We acknowledge that for some institutions this will mean a change in their reporting and for others, it will be the start of their reporting journey. EAUC is working with the DfE to develop further support, particularly smaller universities and colleges with limited staff and resources, in starting to report.

Current Reporting for the FE and HE sector

Many universities and colleges have begun to develop their carbon reporting; however, due to a lack of consistency, the challenge is that different institutions report in different ways, making transparency and comparison difficult, and can frequently lead to institutions open to greenwashing. By ensuring consistency in the sector, the Framework can remove the risk of greenwashing and help support students’ decisions in choosing which institutions to study at.

SCEF will have no effect on existing legal requirements institutions may have such as carbon reporting mechanisms such as Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting (SECR) and the Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS). DfE will continue discussions with the Devolved Administrations, BEIS and other statutory bodies about the future of reporting for the education sector and to agree use of already collected data in the first instance to support and facilitate any reporting duty.

For universities that report (via HESA’s Estates Management Record (EMR) – this is currently being revised to replace the carbon factors with the SCEF, and the non-carbon elements will be updated via sector recommendations led by AUDE. Public sector reporting in Wales and Scotland will remain mandatory.

What’s next?

While DfE is not currently making reporting mandatory the writing is on the wall – the government’s Net-Zero Strategy commits to legislating the reporting of emissions if insufficient progress is made voluntarily. DfE has committed to enabling reporting by 2024 and as stated in its strategy:

From 2025 we will publish targets and institutional progress for the further and higher education sectors. 

It really begins with institutions measuring and understanding their carbon emissions in a way that is reflective, transparent, and consistent across the sector to enable peer-to-peer review.

This is demonstrated by the first standardised guidance (SCEF) that is built by experts from the sector for the sector, something that has never been done before on this scale.

2 responses to “Accelerating the sector’s journey to net zero

  1. Congratulation to EAUC on this new initiative. I was involved in previous work by HEFCE to develop an initial carbon baseline and targets for English HE and was really saddened to see this work fall into abeyance with the shift to the OfS. It is heartening to see the sector starting to work more collaboratively again on this issue.

  2. Really good to see this work being done – coming from many years of working in HE Comms to now working in Sustainability it’s great to see transparency coming through from the sector.

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