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.
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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- Tyndall J. Note on the transmission of radiant heat through gaseous bodies. In:; 1859.
- Arrhenius S. Arrhenius: Worlds in the Making: the Evolution of the Universe. Harper & brothers; 1908.
- Keeling CD, Bacastow RB, Bainbridge AE, et al. Atmospheric carbon dioxide variations at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. Tellus. 1976;28(6):538–551. doi:10.1111/j.2153-3490.1976.tb00701.x.
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- Pachauri RK, Allen MR, Barros VR, et al. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. EPIC3Geneva, Switzerland, IPCC, 151 p, pp 151, ISBN: 978-92-9169-143-2. 2014.
- Gore T. Extreme Carbon Inequality: Why the Paris climate deal must put the poorest, lowest emitting and most vulnerable people first. Oxfam. 2015.
- 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.
- Allen P, Bottoms I, James P, Yamin F. Who’s Getting Ready for Zero?; 2015:59. http://zerocarbonbritain.org/en/ready-for-zero.
The UK Green Building Council hosted a conference to explore leadership in creating sustainable cities at The Studio, on the side of the river Aire in Leeds. Chaired by CEO, Julie Hirigoyen, and featuring a good number of respected commentators and contributors, it was a forum full of city leaders from Salford, Oxford, Nottingham, Leeds, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Liverpool.
Cities, with increasing urbanisation worldwide, are certainly central to sustainability. It was broadly acnkowledged that demand for and creation of innovation were particular to cities. To deliver it will take a new role for cities here in the UK and new leadership. In times of austerity it was recognised that city councils no longer have the same capacity or capability as they once did.
Fundamental to the debate was the challenging question – “How can policy makers and the private sector create more sustainable places to live and work?” and “Who are the new leaders?” because there was a clear recognition it’s not going to be just city councillors, nor officers. Indeed, the need for other players, including the private sector, universities and other public bodies was unanimously supported.
Supported by Arup, Genr8, British Land and Leeds City Council it felt like a return to a similar event 8 or 9 years ago when the Core Cities and Cabe ran a sustainable cities programme bringing together the 8 core cities outside London (Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield) where similar questions with, perhaps, similar answers were positioned, challenged and agreed. Key learning points then, and now, are that we really need strong leadership taking a ‘whole place, whole system’ approach that takes an outcome led approach, doesn’t stifle creativity and innovation and trusts in collaboration in terms of partners and operating at a range of scales – increasingly at a city region and city region+ scale.
Key learning points:
a) redefine leadership and leaders – there’s a role for wider stakeholders.
b) Standards are important – operating across the UK, e.g. building regulations, EV charging points.
c) There’s still a need for some up-front enabling works for development
d) The social value in procurement should be more credibly used to demonstrate wider benefits
e) Devolution is a process not an outcome
Delivering housing, climate change targets, jobs and improving health and wellbeing is increasingly going to sit with cities. They have the governance, the scale and the demand. How they create the capacity and the capability to set the vision, the outcomes they are looking for the confidence is a challenge we hope the new industrial strategy will deliver.
Switching to a low-carbon economy offers cities ‘significant economic opportunities’, an assessment says. Low-carbon markets was worth US $33bn (£26bn) to London’s economy, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) says in its latest report. The report, It takes a city: the case for collaborative climate action, added that the cities spread over 89 nations had identified more than 1,000 economic opportunities linked to climate change. Almost 300 cities featured in the report were also developing new business industries, such as clean technology.
This blog was written for the Environment Journal in August 2016. You can read it here.
Nottingham is earning a reputation for being a city with sustainability at its heart. So what makes it different to the other core cities in the UK?
Newly published government data shows that since 2011-12 there has been a significant fall in the city’s carbon emissions due to a reduction in domestic energy use. It indicates a 33% reduction in carbon emissions since 2005, beating a target set by Nottingham City Council to reach a 26% reduction by 2020.
Councillor Alan Clark, portfolio holder for energy and sustainability, said of the news: ‘It’s a great achievement to have met this important target four years early. Nottingham is at the forefront of sustainability awareness and these latest figures maintain the city’s position as the UK’s most energy self-sufficient city.’
Without doubt, there is political commitment to the agenda in the city where Robin Hood Energy has become a pioneering and leading, if small, player in the domestic electricity and gas markets and has fast gained a reputation for value for money, as shown by a recent Which? report. Borne out of the council’s quest to tackle fuel poverty, it’s a not-for-profit success.
But providing cheaper fuel on its own doesn’t reduce carbon emissions. It’s investment in low carbon alternatives and improving building stock that’s achieving that.
It’s no coincidence that Nottingham’s carbon emissions reduction coincides with its programme of ‘energy saving investments in social housing such as external wall insulation programmes which have also been open to private owners and the installation of solar panels on over 4,000 of council house roof tops’, said Clark.
But here’s the real insight – Nottingham has been prepared to acknowledge that carbon reduction goes hand-in-hand with economic success. You won’t hear people in the city saying ‘we can’t do that it will scare off developers or investors’. Quite the opposite, it’s attracting the sort of businesses who want to be part of this responsible growth. Its confident approach follows from investment in human capital as well with a number of experienced and respected officers joining the council to lead the agenda and support its cabinet’s ambitions.
Councillor Nick McDonald, portfolio holder for business, growth and transport said: ‘A significant part of this reduction – around 13% – is due to the popularity of public transport, cycling and walking in Nottingham. We have Europe’s largest fleet of electric buses, the addition of the new Chilwell and Clifton tram routes and £6.1m invested in improving cycling routes to provide great alternatives to using cars to get around the city.’
It’s also galvanising the efforts of long-standing businesses in the city, like Boots and its two universities – both of which are considered to be amongst the most committed and highest performing universities in terms of sustainability.
The University of Nottingham has been placed first in the University of Indonesia’s Green Metric for the past three years and has never been out of the top two places since its inception. Nottingham Trent University consistently performs well in the index and, with a combined total of students well over 60,000, that’s a good proportion of the city covered.
Nottingham’s political commitment and clear strategy have brought confidence and a long-term approach that has enabled the city to invest its own money wisely as well as attract government funded programmes like Go Ultra Low.
The city is already making waves towards becoming a trailblazer Low Emission City through:
- Europe’s largest battery electric bus fleet with 45 fully battery electric buses in operation on our Linkbus network and 13 more electric buses on order
- Expansion of the electric NET tram system to three lines spanning 34km
- Inclusion of ULEVs as part of the council’s current fleet makeup
- Electric vehicles operating in our growing car club
- Electric vehicle charging infrastructure already in place at key Park and Ride services, workplaces and destinations
- Two local private hire companies operating six full electric and 150 hybrid vehicles
- Only Go Ultra Low shortlisted city to be awarded Lighthouse City status by EU. Funding secured for REMO Urban project for smart low carbon transport, energy and ICT projects
- Local commitment to the electrification of the Midland Mainline
- Local Authority owned, Robin Hood Energy and Enviroenergy generating and supplying local sustainable power for residents, businesses and transport
- The council has prepared a prospectus highlighting the key investment areas which will help to support Nottingham’s ambition for becoming a low emission city.
All of this is impressive. The city, led in the main by the council, has made the low carbon agenda a priority. It makes good business sense to reduce its own consumption and bills, to reduce fuel poverty and create an environment that business can buy-in to and support. While other provincial core cities have downsized their capabilities, Nottingham has invested and is clearly reaping the rewards in the triple bottom line. Reduced costs, happier citizens, better business.
A new district heating network in Sweden is based on a digital control system that allows for what its developers call virtual energy storage in buildings.
A control system manages the heat network, co-ordinating production and distribution with consumption through real-time analysis. Stored heat can be redistributed across the network, reducing peak load.
‘Through intelligent property controls the energy reserve can be put to better use in other parts of the network, thus reducing so-called peak load without affecting the indoor climate,’ the developers said. ‘This evens out the load on the grid over a 24-hour period, so the boilers do not need to work as hard and the flow through the district-heating pipes is more uniform.’
I wrote in March 2014 that cities were entering a new age of Victoriana, where cities, bereft of Government spending and failed by national energy policy, are returning to their roles of municipal leadership and investing in the infrastructure they need to serve not only voters in homes but those businesses that generate the ever important business rates. It’s great then to read that Bristol has committed £5m of capital expenditure to create a new district heating scheme in the city utilising biomass as the low carbon fuel of choice and, alongside other forward thinking cities such as Nottingham (Robin Hood Energy, etc) are genuinely delivering this vision.
The money is one thing. Well done to Bristol for committing £5m when budgets are tight and austerity means competing for budgets within frontline services is every more ferocious. But the really neat part of this is the way in which the Council’s Planning Authority has used its policies to drive demand for the heat network and de-risk the project.
Under current planning laws, all new building developments in Bristol within a designated “heat priority area” are required to connect to a heat network or be “district heating ready” unless technically unviable. Therefore, the new network scheme is also expected to significantly improve the green credentials of new developments in the city.
Of course, new build projects in 2017 and beyond, even without code for sustainable homes and a more proactive building regulations for commercial build will be low demand in terms of heat so the business case still has to stack up. But achieving the city’s carbon targets is serious for the Mayor and he’ll need a 4th generation heat network to deliver it.
Over two years ago I wrote about 4th Generation Heat Networks – setting out what a 4th Generation, 21st Century, heat network should achieve. It should seek to achieve a number of improvements on existing networks, including:
- Greater resilience, through heat storage, back-up and optimisation;
- Lower carbon heat, through the adoption of lower carbon fuel sources, such as geothermal heat, biomass, biogas, solar;
- Choice and product differentiation, offered through multiple heat providers inputting to a singular (independent possibly) network over which consumers buy their heat. Products could be differentiated by temperature (return temperatures are lower than those temperatures leaving central plant), carbon intensity (fuels of varying intensities of heat can command different prices and values shaped by carbon markets and carbon targets).
The (new) Mayor of Bristol has approved the expenditure on the back of the city’s status of 2015’s Green Capital. He approved the city’s first major step towards becoming carbon neutral by 2050, giving the go-ahead for £5m in capital funding to build a low-carbon district heating network to serve the city.
The first phase of the heat network, which was approved earlier this week, will supply low-carbon heat to buildings throughout Bristol via a network of underground pipes connected to a number of energy centres, including biomass boilers and gas combined heat and power plants. Over time the city plans to phase out the use of natural gas in favour of renewable alternatives.
“One of my campaign promises was to put Bristol on course to run entirely on renewable energy by 2050,” Mayor Rees said in a statement. “Without a city-wide heat network this target will not be possible, particularly in a city with a historic centre, where solar and wind technologies are not always an option for technical or financial reasons.”
“This is a major infrastructure project that will connect parts of the city over a number of years and which will deliver substantial benefits to the environment, residents and businesses in Bristol,” Mayor Rees added. “In the meantime, we are already delivering low carbon, stable and fairly priced heat to council tenants, many of whom are currently living in fuel poverty, which is a cause that’s very close to my heart.”