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"The Governor View" - The university estate and net zero

Finding ways to reduce energy use and costs while maintaining university campuses as successful, welcoming, functioning places is a key strategic aim for governing boards. At many universities carbon reduction targets are part of key performance indicators, with a number aiming for net zero carbon or “climate-positive” outcomes within specific time frames.

But getting to net zero is not cheap. According to this year’s AUDE Estates Management Report (EMR), the approximate bill is estimated at circa £40 billion for the entire Higher Education (HE) estate. And the challenge of hitting green targets, managing capital spending and keeping the estate in good repair becomes that much harder when inflation and borrowing rates are high.

At one Russell Group university in southern England, an “enormous estates programme” has an objective of delivering an estate with a reduced carbon footprint.

Lower carbon emissions might not have been the raison d'etre for the new builds, but they are intrinsic to the plan, according to its chair of governors.

“Our board really does think this is important and really matters; it is one of the 15 board level KPIs that we measure,” he said. “We have big new builds and big refurbishment programmes over the next three; it’s a clear plan and shovels are in the ground. We also have a 10-year plan that is subject to certain amount of change, of course.”

Maintenance is a big issue: buildings from the 1960s and 1970s are heavy on the upkeep and need to be modernised to be more energy efficient.

“The new build and improving the condition of our existing estate has to happen if we are going to meet our plan to get to net zero on our scope 1 (direct emissions from owned or controlled sources) and scope 2 (indirect emissions from the purchase and use of electricity, steam, heating and cooling) emissions by 2030,” said the chair.

Having expertise in green issues at a board level is a bonus and can help raise the profile of sustainability on the agenda. 

“We were incredibly fortunate in that the chair of our audit committee has led on sustainability issues in a major private sector organisation,” said the chair. “He is deeply knowledgeable about it and can spot greenwashing a mile off.”

There are myriad reasons for governing boards to be thinking strategically about sustainability and reducing carbon footprints. Not least, as one governor puts it: “We are expected by pretty much everyone that is interested in the university, from students, staff, the Office for Students, the government, and stakeholders, to take it seriously and we want to do it well.”

New global rankings, such as The QS sustainability league table, measure the social and environmental impact of universities, the impact alumni are making in science and technology to solve climate issues and the impact of research being done across the UN's 17 sustainable development goals

Moving up the rankings enhances an institution’s international reputation, according to the governor of a research-intensive university.

A new university in the south of England also has a target to be climate-positive by 2030. A governor here said carbon reduction is discussed at board level on occasions but that more substantive discussions are at committee level.

“I know that others are doing the work, and I am comfortable in the knowledge that they are ensuring that the issue is taken into account,” he said.

Measures at this university include elimination of single use plastic, with catering using glass milk bottles, bamboo cutlery and eco-friendly corn starch cups, for instance. A new travel plan and car parking policy, which means staff living within two miles of the campus are no longer eligible for parking permits, has resulted in a substantial decrease in the number of staff driving to work.

In common with many institutions, some of which are generating their own energy from solar, heat pumps or other local solutions, all of the university’s electricity is being regularly provided from UK based renewable sources. This allows universities to report zero emissions for electricity under the Green House Gas (GHG) Protocol of corporate standards.

Other energy sustainability initiatives across the sector include fitting lighting movement sensors, upgrading and closely monitoring heating systems and improving insulation.

For universities with ambitious or innovative net zero plans, energy costs in the short term can increase in order to meet longer term sustainability aspirations.

Recent rises in energy costs have been a challenge for institutions. Overall sector spend on energy during 2021-22 rose from £400 million to £574 million, an uplift of 43 per cent, according to this year’s AUDE Estates Management Report (EMR). Some universities, though, were fortune enough to be locked into more favourable long-term arrangements on energy before the crunch hit post-Covid.

“Our finance director secured a really good deal, so we were insulated from it when other people began to suffer,” said one Russell Group governor. “In order to meet our sustainability targets we are having to invest and having to spend more on energy than we otherwise would. We could also buy energy cheaper than we are now if we weren’t bothered about where it comes from, but of course we want to use renewable energy.”

According to this governor, the biggest challenges to the university’s progress towards sustainability goals have been rising inflation and the availability of the right skills.

“It has been quite hard to find construction companies that can build what we want to the right standard in the right time frame,” he said.

One alternative provider has recently been awarded Net Zero accreditation following an in-depth analysis of the university’s emissions and environmental impact. Initially emissions are being offset through two community projects in India as it examines how it can alter practices across the university to further minimise its carbon footprint.

A governor says that sustainability is an important agenda item but comes after the more general concerns of academic progression, financial solvency, regulation and thinking about technology and its role in education (which, he points out, is not unrelated to net zero and climate change considerations).

The university’s progress to net zero is boosted by strong online programmes and the housing of its numerous study centres across England in modern office-style buildings which are relatively energy efficient.

“We don’t have the kind of aging campus that some universities have and that are a challenge,” said the governor. “We are not a research university and in some sense that probably helps us; mathematicians don’t tend to burn a lot of energy but people working on jet engine research, for instance, probably do. One of the other things about researchers is that they tend to travel a lot and have collaborations that involve travel. We don’t have that.”

For this governor it is important to unpack what being “carbon neutral” means and to continually assess the institution’s environmental impact in the wider world.

“You can get your certificate saying you are net neutral but there are many ways to think about it,” he says. “When we say we are net neutral is that taking into account all the activities that we are associated with or just the bits that we are directly involved in?”

The governor gives the example of the university’s use of technology: “We use a lot of IT and one of the things we need to be conscious of is how sustainable the computers we buy are, not just in terms of energy but the rare minerals and all that.”

AI in education, notably the large language models like ChatGPT, consume substantial amounts of energy but is this recorded on university sustainability balance sheets?

“This energy consumption is in data centres somewhere overseas so how much of that counts or do we say ‘that’s not us, that’s our supplier’?,” he asks. “It is a generic question for higher education; how far are we actually net neutral; which bit of you is net neutral and how far along the supply chain do you go?

“You can say “we’re carbon neutral” but it depends who is included in that “we”. Do you include commuter students who travel into campus every day, for instance? Do you have a long-term horizon? Where are we drawing those boundaries?”

He also questions the validity of offsetting exercises as research casts doubt on their efficacy.

“There are many tree planting offsetting schemes, which is great but how long is that tree going to be there and is that tree going to be planted anyway and someone has just allowed us to take credit for it? With offsetting exercises, it is almost never the case that you can guarantee that that carbon is going to be locked away forever. The whole thing is a little bit more complicated.”

Student unions are often active in driving grass root green campaigns, from lobbying for fossil fuel divestment to the introduction of vegetarian menus, but one governor point to the importance of educating students, staff, faculties and stakeholders generally in what it means to be net zero. 

“What if the biggest single thing that can happen on campus to contribute to net zero is that students eat less meat?” said one governor. “If that’s the case, we should be informing them of that. We need a whole institution approach; there is not one magic way of making all this happen, it has to pervade everything you do.”

For one governor, the experience of the pandemic has shown that big strides can be made in relatively short time spans if the will is there.

“That period changed things culturally I think,” he said. “Universities were able to do things very quickly, particularly in the digital teaching and learning front, that nobody thought we could do. I think that kick started a bit of culture change that extends into other areas. No longer does the excuse hold that sustainability/net zero/estate plans have to be consulted up the ying-yang for two years before you do anything.”

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