University Estates Still Underpin Sustainability Progress in Higher Education

Sustainability has never been more important to the UK higher education sector than it is today and over the past 25 years there has been an ever increasing commitment from the higher education sector.

In 2015 the publication of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals put greater emphasis on the role of education in global sustainability and, globally, politicians have committed to those goals.

This has helped shape the education, learning and research agendas in the developed and developing worlds and the research portfolios of the seven major research councils focus on these global challenges featuring investments in crop productivity and agricultural sustainability (BBSRC); energy and the built environment (EPSRC); international relations and economics (ESRC); health of the public and antibiotic resistance (MRC); climate change and management of land and natural resources (NERC); energy and nuclear physics (STFC). Increasingly it features in the curriculum of degree programmes, equipping graduates with an understanding of one of the greatest challenges we face – sustaining the planet’s health so that the growing human population can survive and thrive for centuries to come.

Universities in the UK have responded to the research challenge and have developed world leading expertise in a wide range of disciplines – cities and urbanism, public health, food and crops, climate adaptation, energy systems and transport, forestry and water and they’ve done it on the campuses, in the buildings and laboratories and out there, for real, in wider society. Because of that, the campuses of 2018 are very different to the campuses of 1992 when AUDE first formed.

Today, visit any UK university and the chances are you will find an exemplar building or project that showcases the art of the possible. Zero carbon laboratories, BREEAM outstanding buildings, LEED Platinum and Passivhaus standards abound. Without doubt, our universities are able to demonstrate best practice with exemplars but are the social, economic and environmental impacts (both positive and negative) of universities adequately understood – both academically and operationally?

Over the past 25 years Directors of Estates and their teams have been central to the delivery of increasingly sustainable estates. The agenda has evolved from a marginalised-green view so that now sustainability professionals are commonplace across many universities helping to shape and deliver increasingly higher standards of performance.

Indeed, the higher education sector has got much to be proud of and can point to some fantastic examples of best practice such as the University of East Anglia’s Enterprise Centre, the Cockroft Building at the University of Brighton or the Centre for Sustainable Chemistry at Nottingham, but despite efforts, most universities are failing to deliver meaningful carbon reductions. A recent report by Brite Green revealed that 71% of UK higher education institutes are forecast to fail the carbon targets they set around 2010 in response to the Higher Education Funding Council for England – even those considered to be doing the most. Whilst much of the public sector has been contracting and reducing its footprint since 2008 the university sector has been encouraged to grow. Chances are, if there are 5 cranes in your city one or two of them are in the middle of a university campus. The real success has been to grow whilst maintaining a reduction in carbon emissions along the way. In fact, the analysis shows that whilst the higher education sector in England has improved its carbon emissions reduction performance it is still off track to achieve the 2020 targets and is far from the 43% HEFCE target.

Increasingly there is a strong economic case for doing embedding the principles of sustainability in to the way campuses are developed so that they are inclusive, safe and environmentally responsible.

Whereas once ‘sustainability’ was seen as a differentiator it’s now considered an expectation and, without doubt, the expectations of current and future students are ever higher and, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, it’s important to deliver.  To attract the very best talent universities are creating inspiring, healthy, innovative spaces that support the research and learning strategies of our universities.

This is a challenge AUDE has fronted up to and, with others, is working with its members to support them in achieving these targets and continuing to contribute towards the wider sustainability agenda. In response to these new challenges, AUDE has developed training and learning activity to support its members and helped to celebrate real achievement through recognising leaders in its awards, conferences and programmes. Alongside that, AUDE has developed a sector-specific tool, the Green Scorecard, to provide benchmark performance information across wide range of estates-related metrics such as biodiversity, waste, water, transport and energy.

There is much change in the higher education sector and, similarly, whilst the scientific evidence for climate change is clear, the policy response isn’t. Successive British governments have been inconsistent in policy and approach and it may become less clear how carbon reduction targets will be achieved whilst negotiating exit deals with the European Union from where much of our energy dependency still comes. Universities are here for the long term and will benefit from longer term policy thinking in government. Whilst the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments have made firmer commitments, Whitehall and Westminster need to provide consistency.

For Directors of Estates, the future is both challenging and exciting. It’s unclear how long the current period of campus expansion can continue. Great uncertainty about the impact of Brexit and stability in the international market may mean that there’ll be a greater focus on maximising the efficiency of existing estates through more robust space management and, afterall, doing more with less and being resource efficient is a fundamental plank of any sustainability strategy. A renewed focus on older buildings and wider infrastructure services will ensure greater longevity for buildings that can have a second, third or even fourth life in a changing climate where resilience to extreme weather patterns will be increasingly important.

If we’re really to embed sustainability in the higher education sector it needs to maintain its strong foothold within estates departments whilst an institution-wide approach is adopted to ensure the wider mission, objectives and strategies consider their economic, social and environmental responsibilities more holistically so that sustainability is considered ‘just good business’.

The opportunity to bring together both the academic mission and the operational need through the development of ‘living labs’ and ‘smart campuses’ could be the way in which universities develop not just sustainable operations, but also learning, knowledge and transferable impact.

Imagine campuses demonstrating real-world, global, sustainability challenges using their intellectual potential to address practical issues and demonstrate them on campus. By co-creating teaching, learning, research and operational activity the next 25 years of university development will see greater innovation, inspiring architecture and better places to live, work and study than ever before. What a neat way to help deliver the sustainable development goals here and across the planet.

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Any New Ideas in the New Clean Air strategy for Sheffield ?

Sheffield City Council’s cabinet meets next Wednesday 13th December to sign off a ‘new’ clean air strategy alongside a new ‘Transport Vision for Sheffield‘ which states, tucked away on page 10 that it’s developing a Green City Strategy with climate change at its heart  … 10 years on from the ‘Environmental Excellence’ strategy I wrote with the Labour Cabinet Member of the time I don’t see anything new in the strategies for transport or air quality despite the obvious improvement in data and opportunities afforded by new technologies. Whilst it’s hard to disagree with anything said in either strategy it hardly inspires a step-change in commitment.

There are also plans to establish a series of “Congestion Conversations” to fully understand any areas where congestion hotspots could be tackled with some small changes … [and] we now know that diesel cars are a major contributor to NOx emissions in the city.

To be precise, officers of the Council have known about these issues for a long time. This is not a new discovery. In fact, the Council is simply more accepting of the fact since the Government acknowledged it and has, since, actively disincentivised diesel engines.

As a result “We are seeing a downward market shift nationally in the demand for new diesel cars as a result of greater awareness of air pollution issues. However, there are still a significant number of older diesel cars in the city. Our data suggests that 41% of vehicles registered in Sheffield in 2016 were diesels, almost 30% of private cars are older diesels and there are a lot of older and more polluting petrol private cars on our roads too”.

So far then, a series of ‘comversations’ about congestion alongside some campaigning and now a commitment to “work in partnership with the bus companies to improve the bus fleet and reduce emissions … seeking investment to enable the retrofitting or replacement of the bus fleet” – something the Council has been saying for some time. Again, nothing new here and the evidence in the strategy that the city has some of the worst buses in the country. Even the small percentage of EURO6 engines isn’t encouraging – they often perform worse that EURO5 engines. 

I fear there’ll be little change in the bus operator’s attitude – especially if they’re also being asked to hold fares down (which is a good thing for air quality and carbon emissions overall unless you live right next door to an idling bus lane such as Broomhill, Ecclesall Rd or through West St.

More consultation is planned with the taxi operators: “We will consult and work with the taxi operators and other interested parties, to ensure we have theright standards in place, taking into account the wider implications of any changes that may be needed. We will seek investment from Government for a fund to help taxi operators/owners to improve their vehicles. This will be particularly focused on the most polluting taxis.”

All feels a bit passive to me. No mention of actively investing in electric charging infrastructure for residents, visitors and businesses in the way Nottingham City Council has done over the past 12 months (with a massive £2m roll out plan with Chargemaster). Scant mention of adopting its own fleet (and, I hope Veolia, Kier, etc) and just a postscript on supporting the University of Sheffield’s work on hydrogen.

So, more consultation (with taxis) and no real technological change or use of any smart ambitions for route planning, real time data, smart systems (other than dockless bikes) but, there will be [another] new parking strategy, which will reflect our aims to manage parking demand and incentivise lower emission forms of travel [good]. As part of this we will:

  • Review the parking permits available, including Green Parking Permit scheme, to ensure that they reflect the latest technological improvements and are incentivising low emission vehicles.
  • Review our Sheffield City Council employee parking schemes to encourage public transport, active travel and other low emission forms of transport.
  • Review parking across the city, including areas that are currently unregulated
  • Identify, review and implement a range of parking encouragements and disincentives to improve air quality.

I will be really interested to see how far the Council is prepared to go on this. In truth, they own very little of the off-street parking in the city anymore. Most of it is provided by private companies over whom they have very little influence. The parking stock in question is on-street, highly politicised [by a parking lobby and the Members themselves] and small in number.

On the positive side, it’s good to see a strategy going to Cabinet. It’s been in the queue for a very long time. It’s important that it integrates with the City’s transport strategy and they work together. I’m also really encouraged to learn there’s a Green City Strategy in the making too. But what I have read in these strategies is passive, lacks real teeth and misses the opportunities to use new technologies and stimulate a market for low emission vehicles in the City.

A-level Masterclasses in Sustainable Chemistry

PhDtoSuccess

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The masterclasses are part of a program for Year 12 students, that was set up by the University’s Widening Participation (WP) Team.  This programme aims at encouraging students who are starting college to take the step into higher education. To apply, the participants must have achieved 7 A*-C grades at GCSE including English and Maths. Additionally, they must be first generation in their family to attend university as well as living in a household with an income under £42,000. The Centre for Doctorial Training in Sustainable Chemistry decided to join the programme in 2016 and deliver The A-Level Masterclass in Sustainable Chemistry for students in the East Midlands. This is, overall, a one week event delivered by the PhD candidates of the Centre in two different periods of the year, 1st and 8th of March and from the 16th to 21st of July.

17-year old A…

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How to win the climate wars – talk about local ‘pollution’ not global warming

As the Caribbean islands and Florida were hit by enormous, powerful storms in the past week it’s not difficult to see the predicted effects of climate change so eloquently shared by Al Gore in his film Truth to Power played out across that part of the planet. Loss of lives, livelihoods, property, personal effects – lives changed forever by the relentless storms.

The focus of climate change often falls on mitigation – slowing down global warming by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases – but resilience is every bit as important.

Tae Hoon Kim, Researcher in Energy Politics, University of Cambridge writes:

Donald Trump has done many things to tarnish America’s reputation, but his decision to walk away from the Paris Agreement is probably the most internationally symbolic and damaging. That a US president can put climate change denial at the centre of his climate and energy policy is truly unprecedented, and it is difficult to remember an administration that has been so intent on undermining the intellectual and scientific findings on global warming.