UK universities struggle to meet emissions targets

By Ken Warner, MD, Energy Renewals

UK universities are world renowned centres of academic excellence, pioneers of research, development, science and technology, yet most are failing to stay on track to achieve carbon footprint reduction targets.

The recent league table the ‘2016 People & Planet University League’ shows only a quarter are likely to meet their targets.

As seats of learning, innovation and enlightenment we would perhaps expect our universities to be leading the way when it comes to creating and maintaining sustainable working environments.

The Guardian reported lack of government support for public sector sustainability as the culprit but at Energy Renewals we all too often discover a multitude of reasons among organisations and businesses large and small when it comes to energy management. Mainly, we hear expertise, lack of resources and other priorities taking precedence blamed for lack of action or a coherent energy plan.

However, UK universities have a legally binding target to reduce emissions by 43% from 2005 to 2020. Only 30 out of the nation’s 150 universities have been accredited ‘first class’ status in the league, which is now in its fourth year.

Topping the table is Nottingham Trent University which this year opened its first carbon negative building called The Pavillion. The University of Brighton, second in the league, recently installed 893 solar panels which puts the institute on course to save £40,000 a year in energy bills and reduce its carbon footprint by 100 tonnes a year.

The Brite Green Higher Education Sector Carbon Progress Report also highlighted the sector as unable to meet the overall reduction requirements by 2020 although following last year’s overall increase in university emissions, in 2015 carbon emissions decreased.

The report’s findings include 71% of universities will fail to meet emissions targets with only 37 predicted to achieve the target. Whilst universities have achieved 10% emissions reduction against a 2005 baseline, the sector is on course to have reduced emissions by 15% by 2020 thereby missing its goal of a 43% reduction substantially.

Three universities were singled out for their performance which has seen them reduce emissions by more than 50%, illustrating such goals are achievable, they are  the School of Oriental and African Studies, London Metropolitan University and the University of Cumbria.

The Brite Green report urged universities to undergo an energy review to highlight the need for improvement, identify areas to be targeted, to share information and benchmark with their fellow universities and to improve management strategies to incorporate sustainability initiatives.

It really is no different to the advice we give to businesses and organisations which turn to us for help in reducing their energy bills.

Once you can pinpoint the areas where wastage is highest, it is easier to develop and implement a plan to reduce usage which in turn drives down bills as well as reducing your carbon footprint. The sector should be following in the footsteps of Oxford Brookes University which adopted demand side response (DSR) measures to reduce energy usage in its accommodation. DSR solutions see the organisation’s reliance on the national grid reduced when it comes under particular pressure.

As well as DSR, universities and, in particular, student accommodation blocks can benefit from shopping around to find the most competitive tariff and identify wastage and put measures in place to reduce it such as smart technology to ensure heating is not left on during the day and smart lighting which turns off when not needed.

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news for our higher education sector, research by People & Planet also shows 25% of institutions have plans to divest from fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, the University of Hertfordshire opened the UK’s first True Zero Carbon accredited accommodation in September which also secured the institution a BREEAM Outstanding rating for its new £120m campus building . The site, which sleeps 3,000 students, uses a biomass fuelled energy centre to generate energy for a large part of the campus.

At the University of Northampton’s new Waterside campus heating and hot water will be generated by an on-site energy centre incorporating woodchip biomass boilers and a combined heat and power (CHP) system when it opens in 2018.

Projects such as these show the huge steps being taken to develop a sustainable energy strategy in the UK’s education sector, but overall with so many institutions not on track to hit their targets, universities will have to take drastic and rapid steps to have an impact. Like all businesses we work with, reducing bills is a massive side effect of reducing energy consumption making it a win-win scenario. We find most organisations have some fairly easy wins to be had in the initial stages of devising an energy management programme. First, though, universities need a robust audit to understand their usage and identify ways to tackle it, once that’s in place impressive in-roads usually follow quickly. As places of international research, development and innovation, it is surely incumbent on the sector to start leading the way in reducing building emissions.