UK universities falling behind on carbon emissions reduction target

Universities across the UK will fall short of their projected reductions in carbon emissions by a vast margin, according to a new report.

As part of the Climate Change Act in 2008, the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) predicted a 43 per cent reduction rate in carbon emissions by 2020, providing a collective £90 million in grants since 2008 to help universities across the country achieve this goal. However, the new report by sustainability consultancy Brite Green finds that UK universities will only achieve an average of 12 per cent reduction in their emissions by this time.

Yvonne Hawkins, Director of Colleges and Universities for the HEFC, defended the universities’ performance in the report, telling The Guardian that the report did not take into account the variable of “significant recent growth in university estates and student numbers.”

The report was conducted by Brite Green, an accolated organization which is a “sustainability strategy consultancy which specialises in delivering enhanced business performance through improved sustainability performance,” according to their mission statement.

Darren Chadwick, managing partner at Brite Green, has made statements suggesting that it is universities’ drive for commercial growth which hinders their attempts at reducing emissions and establishing cleaner energy sources. “The very institutions who are providing the evidence of climate change should be the loudest proponents of effective policy and investment in low carbon technology”, Chadwick told Times Higher Education.

The report has lauded certain universities for their high reduction projections and success in following through on the cleaner energy initiative. London Metropolitan University, University of Cumbria and the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London were the top three institutions to reduce their ‘absolute emissions,’ all sporting reduction rates of over 45 per cent in the past ten years.

Rachel Ward, sustainability manager at London Metropolitan University, said that the reduction effort is a result of the work of the entire university, saying: “We’re immensely proud of our efforts to reduce the University’s emissions, we’re not complacent, however, and have some big plans for our future.

“This year we’re utilising renewable energy for ourselves for the first time by installing solar panels on our Science Centre, reviewing lighting across the institution, and managing a project to improve the energy efficiency of our buildings”, she told Times Higher Education.

In an interview with The Student last week, Professor Charlie Jeffery, Vice Principal of the University of Edinburgh, admitted that the University had fallen behind, but linked the low numbers to architectural expansion. 

Asked by The Student about the emissions target, Jeffery said: “Yeah, we’re not meeting that.

“But in large part, that’s because the University has grown so much. Carbon emissions relate directly to activity and things like the amount of buildings we have and therefore the need to heat and power them. 

“The University has grown not least to provide new facilities for climate change and to provide sustainability, so there’s a bit of a bind there.

“I think that the relative figures are edging down but the absolute figures are going up.”

The Brite Green report was dedicated to measuring three different components of a university’s sustainability efforts. The primary findings were a study of absolute emissions, which are defined as the level of overall reduction in carbon emissions of an institution.

The second category ranks universities in their emission intensity, studying each institution’s emissions per square meter.

The third chart of the report analyses emissions in relation to income, focusing on the extent to which universities sacrifice their commercial goals for their environmental ones.

Image: Kim Seng

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