Our path to Net Zero Carbon

Posted on: 29 April 2022 in Issue 1

Transitioning to net zero greenhouse gas emissions will require the University to transform how it operates. We caught up with Nicola Davies, Director of Finance and Executive Lead for Sustainability, and Rachael Hanmer-Dwight, Carbon and Utilities Manager, to find out how the University is planning to achieve this ambition.

Understanding our emissions
Net zero means not adding any overall emissions to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. To achieve this goal, the University will need to eliminate, reduce, or mitigate emissions associated with its activities. Emissions are categorised into three different groups:

  • Scope 1 are emissions created on-campus associated with research and teaching, facilities and equipment plus on-site gas consumption, and the petrol and diesel used by University vehicles
  • Scope 2 are energy-related emissions generated off-campus, linked for example to electricity we get from the grid
  • Scope 3 are all other indirect emissions associated with University activities, such as goods and services purchased, business and commuter travel, waste and water plus the carbon within our built estate

The University will decarbonise its ‘Scope 1’ and ‘Scope 2’ emissions by 2035 – 15 years ahead of the legal target set by the UK government. We already monitor and report on our Scope 1 and 2 emissions on an annual basis. This data, plus the impact of associated strategies linked to energy use, travel and transport, water and waste reduction, will be used to help measure progress towards the 2035 target. We are also working to make our campus more energy efficient to further reduce our scope three emissions.

“We have set ourselves an ambitious decarbonisation target and are currently developing plans to help us transition to becoming net zero and nature positive,” says Nicola. “Given our really diverse campus, and the age and condition of some of our buildings, this is going to be a challenge, but we know we need to start work on it now because 2035 is rapidly approaching.”

Achieving Net Zero will mean transforming every aspect of University operations, with considerable changes expected to take place long before 2035. Nicola explains: “We are now working on our decarbonisation plan, which will include short-term projects plus longer-term infrastructure planning and adaptations. We will need to invest in order to reach Net Zero, but resources are finite. This will require innovative solutions but thanks to our fantastic academic colleagues and professional service experts I am confident that we will achieve our 2035 target.”

Reducing our carbon footprint
Scope 1 and 2 emissions are mostly within the University's control and that’s why they are the main focus of the 2035 decarbonisation target. The University is currently the eighth largest energy consumer and emitter of Scope 1 and 2 carbon in the UK higher education sector. Our carbon footprint is about 40,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, with the majority being linked to onsite energy generation via our District Heat and Power Network.

Achieving the 2035 target presents a number of key challenges, linked to our diverse built estate, our energy intensive research activities and how we currently heat and power the University.

Previously the University led the way by becoming one of the first higher education institutions in Europe to invest in developing a District Heat and Power Network. On our main campus, we have three Combined Heat and Power (CHP) engines plus three large industrial boilers – which generate 90% of our heat and power needs. We also have a further two smaller CHPs at Greenbank.

The challenge facing the University is that these CHP Engines use natural gas. This used to be considered a cleaner fuel than coal and oil-generated electricity but as power sources get greener and cleaner, we need change our Network if we want to reduce our emissions.

Rachael Hanmer-Dwight, Carbon and Utilities Manager, explains: “We need to look at how we can diversify and adapt our existing District Network and energy operations to a clean energy and net zero future. The University has put significant investment into developing a strong, resilient, and innovative District Network. The challenge for us now is to assess how we can feasibly, and pragmatically, adapt this Network to a new energy landscape, while protecting activities undertaken at the University.”

Rachael continues: “We are developing an energy strategy to prioritise and implement a new long-term energy solution, from adopting alternatives to natural gas, such as hydrogen and biomethane or green gas, to only purchasing green electricity and extending renewable energy generation on campus.”

The University-owned car and van replacement programme is now underway, and by 2025 we will have an all-electric fleet of vehicles. Making the University’s built estate more energy efficient and reducing consumption is also a key priority, with a new Retrofit Strategy being linked to the emerging campus optimisation plans. “We will be working with the whole University community to make people more energy aware and reduce unnecessary consumption,” adds Rachael.

For Scope 1 and 2 emissions that cannot be eliminated, carbon offsetting is being considered, though Nicola stresses that “reducing emissions is our key priority. The first step will be for us to agree robust principles, aligned to UN Sustainable Development Goals, on which emissions can and cannot be offset.”

Scope 3 matters
Scope 3 emissions are not included in the University’s 2035 targets as they are difficult to quantify or control. “This doesn’t mean that we aren’t committed to tackling Scope 3 emissions as part of our plans,” explains Nicola. “We are currently conducting an audit to help us better understand our Scope 3 carbon footprint. This will inform the focus and delivery of our Scope 3 reduction plan, including sustainable procurement and reducing greenhouse emissions associated with building construction and regeneration.”

The University currently produces 3,435 tonnes of waste each year, equivalent to 73 tonnes of CO2 – the current target is to halve waste generation by 2025. Our water usage – linked to supply and wastewater treatment - accounts for a further 100 tonnes of CO2 per year. Future infrastructure investment plans will continue to focus on reducing water demands, with the target of decarbonising water usage by 2030 (subject to UK water industry plans).

Reducing emissions associated with business travel, as well as staff and student journeys to and from campus will continue to be the focus of the University’s Transport Strategy, with an emphasis on hybrid working, public transport and reducing the number of flights we take.

The way we build and adapt our campus is also being reviewed, with whole lifecycle carbon modelling to be embedded into construction practices, covering every stage of the process, from design, construction, and refurbishment through to what happens to the facilities we no longer need. Sustainable procurement practices will also be developed to help reduce consumption and unnecessary purchasing.

“Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions will have a positive impact that extends well beyond our campus and immediate local vicinity,” adds Nicola. “While we don’t have all the answers yet, we are firmly committed to using our considerable resources and expertise to play a positive role in transitioning the University and the organisations we work with to being net zero.”