Grade A environmental sustainability

Coming back to the roots

My passion for environmental sustainability grew throughout my university years. A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to come back to the London School of Economics to give a talk, “Tackling the Climate Crisis through Entrepreneurship: An Evening with Emitwise”.

My colleague Lizzy and I talked about the role Emitwise plays in tackling the climate crisis and how we both got involved in the climate space. It was lovely to speak to students about climate change and share more about our experience at Emitwise.

At university, I longed for more courses on climate change and environmental sustainability which led me to go abroad to study classes on climate change economics, sustainability strategy and sustainable supply chains.

It’s a no brainer for me to equip students with a theoretical understanding of these topics before entering the workplace. Long-time readers will remember that I believe we should learn about these topics from a young age. But beyond what they can teach us, how are universities managing their environmental impact?

Confronting vision and reality for sustainability in universities

As COP26 was approaching, 140 universities in the UK set more robust climate action plans, including emission reduction targets. These universities set to reduce their operational emissions by 78% by 2035 and achieve Net Zero by at least 2050, in line with the UK’s target.

However, one of the critical issues is that universities are failing to measure and report their emissions accurately, a necessary first step to identify opportunities to decarbonise their operations and supply chains.

With a lack of mandatory reporting for supply chain emissions, universities are overlooking the bulk of their emissions when setting and reaching their emission reduction targets.

While achieving emissions reductions associated with heating, boilers, or purchased energy is great, the elephant in the room remains emissions related to procurement, international travel, and investments. For example, De Montfort University’s supply chain emissions represented 79% of its overall emissions, with 38% tied to the procurement of goods and services.

Meeting carbon reduction targets

While campus extensions and increases in students make achieving reductions harder, solutions exist for universities.

A first quick win is to upgrade heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems to increase energy efficiency, reducing energy costs and emissions. Universities can also produce renewable energy on their campuses or purchase it from the grid.

When it comes to harder to abate emissions, the University of Manchester has published research on reducing emissions associated with flights and catering, significant contributors to a university’s emissions but which are often overlooked in their climate action plans.

For academic travel, policies can make train journeys the default for specified distances. In an industry where staff career progression is tied to international mobility, promotion criteria and job requirements should ensure that academics would not be negatively impacted if they decided to shy away from flying. Additionally, videoconferencing solutions could be favoured to reduce the number of trips.

When it comes to food, universities have a role to play in reducing the amount of meat offered on campus, favouring plant-based foods and alternatives to encourage change.

An impact of universities that is often overlooked is the one created by their endowment funds. These funds, worth up to a billion pounds for universities such as Cambridge & Oxford, have high exposure to fossil fuel investments. Universities should fully divest from fossil fuels to reduce the emissions associated with their investments.

Carbon neutrality for LSE

The London School of Economics recently became the first university to be verified as carbon-neutral in the United Kingdom.

Operational emissions have been reduced by 44% since 2005, in part due to £4.8 being invested in energy efficiency measures, retrofitting of buildings, and the upgrading of equipment. When it comes to its investments, the school is also making progress as it reduced its endowment’s exposure to tobacco, weapons, thermal coal and tar sands by 80% since 2016.

Having measured the emissions from its operations and part of its supply chain, the school purchased carbon credits to finance conservation and reforestation programmes. However, LSE’s emissions assessment still overlooks key components of its supply chain such as student travel and the procurement of goods and services.

The sceptic in me sees it as all but too easy to say your emissions haven’t increased with the expansion of the campus if you don’t account for the goods purchased for construction projects. Additionally, the year chosen by LSE to achieve carbon neutrality is a year in which travel was limited by the pandemic. Whereas emissions associated with business travel amounted to 4,195 tonnes of carbon in the 2018–19 academic year, they only amount to 45 tonnes of CO2e over the 2020–21 period.

Albeit there are limitations to the LSE’s emissions assessment, their environmental sustainability efforts are laudable, especially when put into perspective with where some large corporations stand. Nevertheless, there is still a long road ahead if the LSE is to achieve Net Zero by 2050. I hope they will lead the way and inspire universities to accurately measure and reduce their supply chain emissions.

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Pierre-Louis Godin

Pierre-Louis Godin

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Always looking to learn more about environmental sustainability and climate change. I'll mostly be writing about these topics!