Growth in universities takes toll on sector emissions

Universities and colleges in England have fallen further behind their collective 2020 carbon reduction target, with absolute emissions increasing in the last academic year.

Christ Church college at the University of Oxford - one of the worst-performing universities based on carbon emissions

Christ Church college at the University of Oxford - one of the worst-performing universities based on carbon emissions

That’s according to new research from sustainability consultancy Brite Green, which forecasts that English Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) will only achieve a 12% reduction in absolute carbon emissions by 2020 from a 2005 baseline - well behind the 43% target set by the sector in 2008.

“The university sector faces the same defining sustainability challenge as our economy at large: how to achieve meaningful carbon reductions in absolute terms whilst growing,” said Brite Green managing partner Darren Chadwick. “For the Higher Education sector, significant commercial growth is a key driver of increased carbon emissions.

“The findings of our second report continue to stress the need for institutions to take a strategic approach to managing their carbon plans and address all material risks, drivers and opportunities. Institutional carbon strategies should be integrated into the commercial strategies with aligned and achievable reduction targets.”

Top performers 

The year-on-year emissions increase in 2013/14 means that the sector has only reduced emissions by 7% from the 2005 baseline, while more than 75% of universities are set to miss their own 2020 targets.

Of the 127 institutions analysed by Brite Green, only 31 are on track to meet or exceed their targets. The top-10 performers have all achieved absolute emission reductions of more than 40%from the 2005 baseline. Conversely, the bottom performers continue to move further away from their targets compared to last year. 

The top-three performers are London Metropolitan, University of Cumbria, and the School of Oriental and African Studies. The bottom-three are the University of Bolton, Queen Mary University of London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Both Oxford (113th out of 127 universities) and Cambridge (119th) are among the 35 universities that have seen emissions increase since 2005.  

The report does point out that the majority of universities have improved efficiency significantly, both in relation to revenue and floor space. “Since the implementation of carbon management plans, institutions have incorporated effective carbon and energy use reduction programmes, as well as behavioural change initiative,” Brite Green states.

It adds that many UK universities have also been pivotal in developing underlying climate science, along with many of the solutions needed to address the consequences of climate change.

Demanding students

But while many universities have delivered wide-ranging efficiency programmes and aided climate progress, commercial growth in the sector has seemingly limited the absolute reductions in emissions achieved. The performance of the sector as a whole therefore poses important questions about the effectiveness of existing policy mechanisms to achieve the sector-wide target.

Alongside the issue of commercial growth, edie recently highlighted how increased tuition fees and competition among UK universities has created a generation of evermore demanding students which is further complicating the sector's attempts to reduce emissions.

Andrew Bryers, energy manager at Aston University – which ranks third in Brite Green's list of universities based on 'emissions intensity by income' – told us that the trebling of student fees is one of many factors that are hampering the sector's attempts to reduce its environmental footprint, but that effective behaviour change programmes could pick up the shortfall.

Brite Green University Carbon Progress Report

Luke Nicholls


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