Alexandra Hammond, Director of Sustainability at ETL

Like many sectors, Further and Higher Education (FHE) has been massively affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with campuses closed, students learning at home and whole teams having to work remotely.

While we don’t know how the crisis will pan out, some commentators are already predicting huge long-term implications for the sector. These range from the way that teaching is delivered, with further moves to online or at least blended learning, and a reduction in international students, in the short-term at least.

It’s natural that sustainability plans might be lower down the priority list at present as estates teams adapt to the new way of working.

But while the human cost of the pandemic will be terrible, it is in fact helping to shine a light that could help the fight against climate change:

  1. For one, it shows what can be achieved when communities come together with compassion to respond to a global emergency.
  2. It has shown us that we are only as strong as our most vulnerable members of society, and that we need to carry the community spirit built during this crisis into the future and continue to support each other.
  3. Finally, it has highlighted, more than ever, the need to listen and take heed of data that can inform planning and policy.

If sustainability was high on students’ agendas before, coronavirus will likely push it even higher when we return to something like normality. In recent weeks, we’ve seen pictures of the normally clouded canals of Venice running crystal clear and satellite images from NASA showing the normally polluted skies over China now strikingly clean.

There will be a reluctance to go back to business as usual without learning from this opportunity, and students and staff will expect that their college or university is taking a lead on this.

The positive news is that there are both short-term and long-term actions that FHE organisations can be taking now to advance their sustainability goals

Energy is one of the major contributors to CO2 within the FHE sector, costing around £400 million and generating around 3 million tonnes of CO2 a year. Heating, hot water and lighting make up the largest proportion of energy consumption for FHE institutions.

In the short-term, it is still possible to push forward with energy-saving measures whilst campuses are empty. For example, several colleges have been using this time to implement wholesale replacement of inefficient lighting with LEDs. Many of these projects are still achievable under social distancing rules, as only a few contractors are required, and it is possible to maintain safe distances.

Installing LED lighting can result in significant energy, cost and carbon savings with average pay-back periods of under three years. At the time of writing, colleges and universities may be interested to know that interest-free finance for energy-saving projects is still available via Salix for projects that have a payback of 5 years or fewer.

Longer-term, FHE institutions have an opportunity to take stock of their sustainability position and to plan for the future

Currently, public institutions are required to meet the carbon reduction targets set in the UK Climate Change Act Target of 34% by 2020, 57% by 2030 and 100% (net zero) by 2050.

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By creating and publishing a Carbon Management Plan (CMP), FHE organisations can assess their current performance, develop and prepare to implement actions to get them on track to meet sector and organisational carbon reduction targets.

Data can be used from their annual submission to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Estates Management Records (EMR), alongside information from other activities, to calculate their annual carbon footprint and set reduction targets specific to their current baseline.

Impact from procurement can also be included in CMPs, as there is significant scope for reduction through organisational decision-making, and simple swaps can result in cost and carbon savings. For example, eliminating single-use plastics limits environmental damage with little or no operational impact, saves money and also meets with staff and students’ growing expectations that plastic is eliminated wherever possible 

Case Study: The University of Aberystwyth

At EMEX London (Nov 2019), Dewi Day provided insights into the University’s pledge to significantly reduce plastics.

The University has taken several steps to eliminate single-use plastics, including holding annual plastic free days to raise awareness, introducing a coffee cup tax, providing free water fountains for staff, students and visitors and introducing compostable takeaway containers. These changes have in turn reduced the University’s carbon emissions from the purchasing of single use plastics and increased rates of recycling and reuse.

Much of the development work for CMPs can be done remotely, enabling institutions to plan and act quickly as soon as appropriate access to campuses resumes. Preparing and publishing these strategies as public documents helps organisations to communicate their progress and strategy to wider stakeholders and increase engagement with carbon reduction among students and staff, in turn encouraging behavioural change and improved efficiency.

As the current lockdown bans all but essential travel, even the most reluctant of technology users is relying on virtual communication to replace much of our face to face contact. It’s likely there will be a significant shift in the way people expect to attend and participate in the educational process in future, and FHE institutions need to ensure that they have a plan to balance traditional travel with peoples’ changing expectations.

A sustainable travel plan and survey can support institutions to understand and anticipate travel trends, adapt ways of working and identify persistent travel carbon hotspots that require attention.

Through implementing changes such as those mentioned above, FHE organisations can use this extraordinary situation to prepare and respond to the demands of students and staff who are pushing to embed sustainability into FHE operations. While none of us really knows how long the current crisis will last, embracing sustainability is one way to futureproof institutions and keep current and potential students engaged.

Alexandra Hammond, Director of Sustainability at ETL

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