Expanding universities failing climate change goals

One third of London universities have increased their carbon emissions since 2005 and even more are set to miss their 2020 climate change goals, a report by energy consultancy Brite Green has found.

The University Carbon Progress Report found that 76% of universities in England are set to miss the 43% reduction to 2005-level emissions across the sector, and projects a 12% reduction in absolute carbon emissions, half of what was projected in last year’s report.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) set the target for the sector following the Climate Change Act 2008 and has provided £90m for projects since 2008.

Yvonne Hawkins, Hefce’s Director of Universities and Colleges, suggested that “significant recent growth in university estates and student numbers” is responsible for stalled progress.

Researchers used data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and Hefce to study 127 universities in England, offering them the opportunity to provide more information.

London universities feature heavily amongst the 35 UK universities found to have increased their emissions since 2005; they include King’s College, UCL, Kingston, Westminster, LSE and Birkbeck. The greatest increase, of 66%, was found at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and ranking 126th in terms of absolute reduction with a 62% increase, is Queen Mary.

London Metropolitan University leads the sector by reducing absolute emissions by 51%. Rachel Ward, Sustainability Manager at London Met, said the achievement was “the culmination of four years hard work by every part of the University.” SOAS, City and Greenwich have also all achieved reductions of more than 40% from the 2005 baseline.

Some universities, however, have challenged the report’s findings. A spokesperson for Queen Mary said that “we understand the absolute carbon reduction league table is incorrect and QMUL shouldn’t be ranked 126th”.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s spokesperson said that its emissions had increased by 15.6% rather than by the reported 66.37%.

A spokesperson for the University of Westminster, ranked 105th, said that as its projects are still ongoing, “Brite Green’s report has not yet captured our new results.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for King’s College London, ranked 118th, said that on account of a review of reporting requirements, which have led to a difference in baseline and target figures, KCL has actually managed a 7.5% absolute reduction.

University spokespersons have indicated that increasing expansion has been the chief barrier to combating emissions.

While KCL challenged the figures, it said that its progress has been achieved despite increasing combined staff and student headcount by 24% between 2005/06 and 2013/14.

University College London told LS that growth has been a significant barrier in addition to “aspects like increased scientific research [which] lead to higher energy consumption through operating equipment and maintaining stable environments for experiments”.

A spokesperson for UCL said that since 2005/6 it has “experienced dramatic growth in its research activity, leading to a massive 58% increase in staff and student numbers.” Despite this, “UCL’s carbon emissions have remained relatively stable, with only a 2% increase in the last decade”

Darren Chadwick, Brite Green’s managing partner, told The Guardian that “despite the significant efforts of energy and estates managers, strong growth in the sector has meant that many universities have fallen well behind their targets.”

University estate managers and Brite Green’s report emphasised other successes such as most universities improving efficiency “significantly” in relation to revenue and floor space.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s spokesperson said that it has achieved a 40% decrease in carbon emissions per £1 million turnover compared to 2005/06, and King’s College told LS that “carbon emissions per £ of income have reduced by 23% after adjustment for inflation”, suggesting that “KCL has managed to decouple economic growth and increasing carbon emissions.”

These successes reflect the “incorporation by institutions of effective carbon and energy use reduction programmes, as well as behavioural change initiatives” according to Brite Green’s report.

However, Brite Green warns that if universities continue to reduce in line with historical data norms, 96 institutions will not reach their reduction targets.

These projections do not account for half of English universities’ plans to expand student intake over the next 5 years or the expansion projects of Central London universities including Imperial West, UCL East, and KCL’s Aldwytch acquisition, posing questions about the effectiveness of existing policy mechanisms to achieve targets and the long-term objective of 80% reduction by 2050 for the UK generally.


Kyle Hoekstra studies MA Creative Writing at Royal Holloway's Bedford Square campus and is London Student's Exhibitions editor. Contact: kyle.hoekstra@londonstudent.coop.

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