Reducing footprints and increasing brainprints: the role of UK universities in carbon reduction

Given the contents of the last year’s assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change it generated surprisingly little media coverage. When you consider the potential impacts in its conclusions, it makes for some uncomfortable reading.

Backed by universities and meteorological offices the world over, the report uses the latest and best science to evaluate where we’re heading without deep and sustained cuts to carbon emissions, looking at the likely impacts over the coming decades and centuries. It explains that sea level rises could occur, flooding the homes of hundreds of millions of people – many of them in the UK. And the potential for temperature rises of over four degrees would greatly reduce global agricultural output.

However, the IPCC report is also clear that we still have time to avoid the worst effects by making a rapid transition to a global low carbon economy. And universities, in the UK and globally, are crucial to effecting that transition – so much so that the Committee on Climate Change is currently considering a report into the role of the higher education sector in combating climate change.

A sustainable development framework for the Higher Education sector, linked to the Climate Change Act

Universities have been central to driving forward our understanding of the science and the impacts of climate change. They are also where the solutions are being developed around the world to help address the environmental challenges that we are facing.

This means that a review of the role of the HE sector in driving sustainable development is timely. And the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is currently doing just that, consulting on a framework and carbon reduction target for English universities to 2020. This is directly linked to the UK’s own legally-binding targets from the 2008 Climate Change Act, which involves making a 34 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, leading to a 50 per cent reduction by 2025 and an 80 per cent reduction by 2050.

In the first instance, Universities need to lead by example, reducing carbon by cutting their energy demand and using energy more efficiently in their estates and operations. Huge potential still exists from energy efficiency savings, primarily from buildings and transport. And these efficiency savings also help universities to meet two other pressing challenges – making cost savings in a rapidly changing funding environment, and differentiating themselves from other institutions in order to attract paying students. This can be seen in the hotly contested Green Gown Awards, and the vying for rankings in the People and Planet Green League.

The financial opportunity from energy demand reduction is particularly compelling - rising energy prices mean that the potential savings get larger every year. These savings alone should make finance directors sit up and listen. Since 2001 the Carbon Trust has worked with over 3,000 public sector bodies providing them with advice and carbon management services. These organisations have reported actual savings to date of £640 million, with potential future savings of £2.6 billion. As a result money is freed up for frontline teaching and research – the core purpose of the Higher Education sector.

The Carbon Trust is working with universities to help them do just this. We have worked with over 100 UK universities to help them to develop low carbon investment strategies, covering projects ranging from building retrofit to decentralised energy. And we are now taking the UK’s expertise in carbon reduction and exporting it to emerging economies such as Mexico, China, South Africa and Malaysia.

Cardiff Metropolitan University is just one example of our work to help cut carbon in the HE sector. Since working with us in 2008, the university has implemented a range of projects, including automatic monitoring and targeting of energy use, and has cut electricity use by 12% and gas use by 5%. This not only equates to total savings of around £1m over five years, it also means a significant reduction in the university’s carbon footprint.

The Carbon Brainprint of the university sector

However, thinking only about university estates and operations misses the real power of the HE sector to drive change. The wider influence of the sector is massive – examples include education for sustainable development (ESD), research, international collaboration, incubating or spinning out startups, skills development, and collaboration with local government and business.

In a joint project with HEFCE, Santander and the Carbon Trust, Cranfield University attempted to quantify the wider carbon reduction impact and potential of this wider influence – and find ways to grow this impact, as well as increasing the scale of low carbon research and teaching at the university. The term used for this wider impact is Carbon Brainprint – a way to look at the wider carbon reduction potential of the sector.

Through their education and research, universities have a hugely exciting opportunity to lead the way to a prosperous low carbon economy in the UK – and to export technology and expertise overseas. They can develop the skills and knowledge that will be crucial to mitigating, and adapting to, climate change in the future. And through their own action, they can demonstrate the reality of a low carbon economy, as well as tangible cost savings, to students and stakeholders.

By reducing their carbon footprints, and increasing their carbon brainprints, UK universities can be a key part of the solution to climate change.

Read more on our public sector advice services.