From education to employment

Net Zero: The challenges and opportunities for the University sector

Steven Cowan is Technical Director at Padd Energy

Faced with a #ClimateEmergency and the requirement to achieve #NetZero carbon emissions, the University sector is expected to provide leadership in sustainability and decarbonisation.

This has led to many institutions setting Net Zero goals up to 20-years ahead of wider UK targets.

Within this overarching aim Universities are dealing with multiple drivers, including the ongoing development of their estates, resilience, delivering sustainable teaching & learning and maintaining their brand alongside a high-quality student experience. All of this is made more challenging by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic realities which we face.

However, this rapidly evolving situation also invites opportunities. Institutions can instigate wider partnerships and engagement, such as the development of new energy infrastructure with local public and private sector organisations. As our energy system becomes significantly more decentralised, the University sector is well placed to play a key role in this transition and lead the way in achieving Net Zero emissions.

Recent low carbon funding announcements will help Universities to deliver these projects, including the new £50m Low Carbon Infrastructure Transition Programme (LCITP) fund in Scotland and the £1Bn BEIS ‘Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme’ in England (including up to 100% capital grants). The Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme is supported by the new ‘Public Sector Low Carbon Skills Fund’, which can be accessed by eligible bodies to engage expert advice to develop these projects and help prepare applications for the main fund. The scheme can also be used to fund expert consultancy skills to develop a Heat Decarbonisation Plan for the organisation.

Climate Emergency and Net Zero: What is the challenge?

Under the Climate Change Act, the UK Government has legislated achieving Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in England, with a corresponding target of 2045 in Scotland. The latest Committee on Climate Change progress report recommends that the Government set the standard on public buildings decarbonisation by accelerating plans to halve direct emissions in the overall public estate by 2032 at the latest.

Historically, carbon targets set by Universities covered direct emissions from activities owned or controlled by the institution (Scope 1) and indirect emissions from electricity consumed (Scope 2), as defined by the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol. In order to report the full carbon footprint, indirect emissions associated with University activities that occur upstream and downstream (e.g. waste, water, business travel) should also be considered (Scope 3). Several institutions are also actively looking to develop reporting for wider Scope 3 emissions such as staff/student commuting, procurement of capital goods and ICT.

Sustainability Leadership: What does this mean for Universities?

Our academic institutions are considered sustainability leaders. Striving for carbon neutrality and operating in a sustainable manner are considered prerequisites; but this must go further, with Universities expected to lead the way in areas such as procurement and ethical investment.

A University can help to develop their Net Zero approach in a number of ways, including various actions suggested under the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) ‘Climate Emergency Framework’:

  • Leadership and Governance: The framework details how as part of leadership and governance, Universities should commit to their own carbon neutral date. They should also commit to reporting on Sustainability Development Goals (SDG) and sign the SDG Accord.
  • Teaching, Learning and Research: The Climate Emergency Framework focusses on teaching learning and research as well, with the advice for Universities being that they should offer carbon literacy courses for staff and students, whilst also embedding SDG’s within the curriculum.
  • Estates and Operations: Further actions that are suggested in the framework include developing clear metrics and reporting around Scope 1, 2 & 3 emissions, considering options to retrofit existing estate (for example, energy efficiency measures) and developing an adaptation plan.
  • Partnerships and Engagement: It is also essential to engage with staff and students internally, whilst working proactively with the local Authorities/neighbouring private sector sites and consider the best practise from further afield, including internationally.

Strategic Energy Planning: How can Institutions enact Strategic Energy Planning?

Achieving Net Zero requires initiatives and solutions to be implemented across a wide range of sectors. Naturally, energy will be a key focus and this requires a long-term approach. The UK energy sector transition is multi-faceted; it impacts grid scale transmission and distribution, local level campus and building design/ operation and will see increased digitalisation and deployment of Smart technologies.

Organisations such as Universities need a robust yet innovative energy route map, to understand how they will work towards Net Zero in the short, medium and long term. By developing a Strategic Energy Plan through a strong engineering led approach, institutions have time to lay the foundations of decarbonising their estate.

The Strategic Energy Plan should be considered an enabler; it allows short term decisions to be made within the wider framework of an overall Net Zero transition and helps ensure these decisions are ‘low regrets’.

The time to act is now

Time is of the essence for Universities wanting to take advantage of the funding schemes available to help them advance their decarbonisation plans. The Public Sector Low Carbon Skills Fund can be used to engage expert advice in the form of consultancy support, to help develop projects for application to the central £1 billion fund, or to support in producing a Heat Decarbonisation Plan.

Applications for the scheme went live at the end of September and run until 4th December 2020 (Public Sector Low Carbon Skills Fund) and 11th January 2021 (Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme).

Steven Cowan is Technical Director at Padd Energy

Padd Energy specialises in supporting the decarbonisation journey of its clients and making net zero a reality. He has worked with major UK University institutions to develop major low carbon strategies and projects, including Edinburgh, St. Andrews, Glasgow, Strathclyde, Stirling, West of Scotland and Dundee.

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