University scientists have been warning for decades that we need to reduce our carbon emissions. They have discovered the mechanisms behind global warming, calculated the limits of our planet and developed solutions for how to continue in a sustainable fashion. Hence, you would expect universities to be leaders of sustainability already, showing us how their solutions work. However, despite their scientific evidence and what they teach students, most universities are failing to deliver meaningful carbon reductions. In the UK, a recent report by Brite Green revealed that 71% of UK higher education institutes are forecasted to fail HEFCE carbon targets. This highlights a historical disconnect between research and campus operations, which must be overcome. Interdisciplinary networks with a climate vision can be catalysers to change this path and help harness the economic, cultural and environmental benefits that come with such a transition.
I invited Christian Unger of The University of Sheffield’s Carbon Neutral University Network to share his thoughts on why, and how, universities ought to be leading the way to carbon neutrality.
Climate change science and the importance of universities
As early as the 1820s, French mathematician Joseph Fourier first argued that the earth’s atmosphere could act as an insulator 1. British physicist John Tyndall later proved experimentally that the various gases in the air could absorb heat in the form of infrared radiation. In 1859, he was the first to measure the absorptive power of carbon dioxide (CO2) among other gases 2. Based on these works, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius described and quantified the impact of the CO2 and other ‘greenhouse gases‘ on the temperature of the Earth in the early 1900s 3.
The Keeling curve, named after chemist Charles Keeling, showing continuously monitored atmospheric CO2 concentration from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii since 1958 provided the first real evidence for an abnormal increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The first concentration measured in 1959 was 313ppm 4 and since then has significantly increased, reaching the 400ppm mark in 2013 5. To put this in perspective, the atmospheric CO2 concentration over the last 800.000 years until the start of the industrial revolution (~1850), as measured in a study from 2008 from Antarctic ice cores, ranged between 172-300ppm 6. Further research, going back even longer, determined that the last time CO2 concentrations were as high as today was 10-15 million years ago; when our ancestors the orang-utans diverged from the other great apes, temperatures were ~3-6°C warmer and the sea level was 25-40m higher 7.
Together with this CO2 concentration record, the planet has now reached 1 degree warming above pre-industrial level 8. This warming and the associated ice melting has increased sea level and extreme weather events all around the world, displacing people through drought, floods and resulting food shortages. In the 1990s, scientists first described the 2 degrees target as a threshold between extensive and significant destruction risk 9. Limiting global warming to below 2 degrees, as agreed by the world’s nations in the 2015 UN climate negotiations in Paris 10. This will require reducing worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to zero as soon as possible and stabilizing atmospheric CO2 concentrations at 430-480ppm 11.
Universities are at the heart of climate change research; hosting the same scientists who measure warming effects and predict what carbon budget we have left to protect us from extreme danger. University engineers develop renewable energy solutions; social scientists design near zero energy homes, advise on government policies and research behaviour change to reduce our energy demand.
Considering the availability of knowledge, one would expect universities to be beacons of innovation – running their estates sustainably in accordance with their scientific findings.
However, too many universities are not achieving government targets or have even increased emissions in the last few years. In England, a recent report by consultancy Brite Green revealed that 71% of 120 English universities and colleges are predicted to miss their 2020 carbon targets.
Universities educate hundreds of thousands of students every year, employ tens of thousands of staff and impact their local community in so many ways that what they do has a significant multiplier effect – positive or negative. They possess the knowledge not only to plan and indeed become carbon neutral ahead of other institutions, but to trigger transformative change beyond their own borders through their research and teaching – locally, nationally and internationally.
Setting a carbon neutral vision is important and feasible
It is particularly important that universities in the developed world do their bit, as 50% of GHG emissions are generated from 10% of the highest emission countries, including the UK 12.
Achieving carbon neutrality in terms of energy consumption is necessary to stop global warming and indeed feasible. Through their research and teaching expertise, many universities can uniquely deliver solutions for this ambitious energy transition, at the same time as strengthening and promoting their innovation, research and teaching capacity.
More importantly through their solutions, they can provide hope for current and future generations.
The Zero Carbon Britain report produced by the Centre for Alternative Technology aspires for the UK to be carbon neutral by 2030 13. Many other countries, i.e. Germany, Japan, Chile, and cities, such as Berlin and Copenhagen have developed plans to reduce emissions to zero 14. Indeed, there are universities worldwide already on their path to carbon neutrality i.e. Cornell University (U.S.) or the University of St Andrews (U.K.) to name just a few.
However, why are there so few UK universities leading the way and how can others become models of best practice?
Historically, researchers and campus operations teams only communicate on a limited basis, with researchers and teachers provided with space and facilities to deliver research and teaching to their students and the international community. Research findings themselves are communicated internationally to other scientists via specialist journals, hence often failing to inform campus operations.
Further complicating the development of climate change solutions is the interdisciplinary nature of the solutions needed, ranging from climate modelling via renewable energy technologies to sustainable architecture, behaviour change research and politics. These research disciplines are often run entirely separate, which means new communication channels first need to be established for people to come together and improve innovation output.
As an example, at the University of Sheffield, these above partitions effectively weaken the engagement, support and input of researchers into delivering our 43% carbon reduction targets for the year 2020.
Furthermore, although scientifically clear, the need to reduce emissions to zero (carbon neutrality) in the long-term future is not a vision officially accepted or taken forward yet.
Forming a structure for change at the University of Sheffield: A Carbon Neutral University Network
Conscious of the urgency of climate change, we started a small working group of sustainability visionaries to research and compile a written case for carbon neutrality that could trigger further action within the existing university governance structure. This prompted the idea of forming the Carbon Neutral University network (CNU) to support such action – a university community that researches and communicates the climate change problem and uses internal available capacity (students, staff, facilities) to develop local solutions to reduce our carbon emissions to zero.
Before our network was launched in 2015, there was little transparency about the university’s sustainability aims and actions. To improve transparency, CNU has established a website and social media presence reaching currently up to 10000 views each month. We have organised and run information events on climate change research and policy, on university impacts and on building efficiency, which have attracted more than 700 visitors. To reach a wider audience and provide a resource, expert presentations at these events have been recorded and are made available online.
Further, following the network launch, CNU received an official seat on the University’s Carbon Management Group, which oversees energy strategy. This provides our network with first hand access and allows us to present our ideas and proposals to the governance structure. For example a case for a large 35MW wind farm able to generate 100% of our electricity is just one of a few projects under discussion.
Since then, the initially small CNU working group has evolved into a community of more than 250 volunteers from undergrad students to managers and heads of department, along with activists from outside the university. Our community members contribute ideas, time or lead projects, while being supported by a strong coordinator team that tracks, discusses and communicates vision and project outcomes.
Our network founder and current co-chair, Dr Christian Unger, received a Fellowship at the prestigious Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, supporting him to compile and publish the initial CNU network experience and vision in a Carbon and Sustainability Strategy (CaSS) proposal for the University of Sheffield. The proposal describes the underlying reasons for a carbon neutral vision; the situation at our university; and the first steps forward based on working strategy examples from universities around the world. In particular, it suggests (1) putting in place a carbon neutral university goal and (2) forming a structure that can develop and drive a plan to deliver this vision. This strategic proposal has been well received. It aims to initiate the development of detailed plans to embed sustainability in university business through an overarching focus on carbon neutrality.
Our network now provides a hub structure for climate change action at the University of Sheffield, which previously didn’t exist.
Volunteers at any university at no initial cost can establish a Carbon Neutral University network. It translates the passion and expertise of the university grassroots community to start and/or support carbon reductions. The CNU network at the University of Sheffield created a new foundation for a whole range of sustainability activities. It provides a focus point for future ideas, connects the right people to develop a transition plan, and with additional administrative funding, it can provide an important sustainability hub functionality long-term.
We need more universities to become sustainability leaders, by harnessing their unique innovation ability to show the feasibility and benefits of strong carbon reduction solutions to the world. Interdisciplinary communities, such as the Carbon Neutral University Network, can trigger this urgent transformation and we implore everybody to not sit idle and start your own climate action.
If you want to find out more or need help to start your own, please get in touch with us via our website: http://www.carbonneutralshef.weebly.com
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- Allen P, Blake L, Harper P, Hooker-Stroud A, James P. Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future. Published in July 2013, the latest ZCB scenario report integrates new detailed research on managing the variability in supply and demand of a 100% renewable energy system, and on balancing our land use requirements to provide a healthy low carbon diet.; 2013. http://www.zerocarbonbritain.org/en/component/k2/item/85?Itemid=289.
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