Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Climate change - what can universities do?

Climate change is becoming recognised – within the UK and many other nations – as a serious, existential, threat to humanity and society. In this and my next few blog posts I plan to look in a little more detail about how policy responses to climate change will affect universities.

I’m working on the assumption that the current governmental plan for responding to climate change will not hold. The targets are regarded as insufficiently ambitious (, and the action to deliver the targets is behind schedule ( So, for the purpose of these blogs, I’m going to use as a reference point the Zero Carbon Britain work done by the Centre for Alternative Technology ( This sets out a way of achieving net zero carbon within the UK using only existing and proven technology (and a heck of a lot of behavioural changes!)

Undoubtedly, the details of the response that the UK makes to climate change will differ in detail from this work, but it is a useful pointed to the nature, the scale, and the timescale needed if we are to effectively address climate change. As part of the Zero Carbon Britain project, a new report – Rising to the Climate Emergency ( – shows the details of the action plan.

There are four main strands to the plan: reducing demand for energy (make the carbon emissions problem smaller); replacing carbon-emitting energy generation with renewable sources; restoring land so that it helps to extract carbon from the atmosphere; and changing diet to reduce the carbon impact of what we eat.

These themes which will form the topics for this and the next few blogs which I write. They are:

  • Reducing demand: buildings
  • Reducing demand: transport
  • Generating clean energy
  • Land use 
  • Diet

Let’s start with buildings.

The approach here is straightforward. If buildings are better designed and better insulated, we’ll need less energy to heat and cool them. The Zero Carbon Britain plan calculates that action here can reduce demand by about 50%.

This means that future university buildings need to be designed to reduce the need for heating and cooling. The approach suggested in the Zero Carbon Britain is called passivhaus (it’s a German word which translates just as you’d expect – passive house) and it involves using materials and techniques in buildings so that “the heat losses of the building are reduced so much that it hardly needs any heating at all. Passive heat sources like the sun, human occupants, household appliances and the heat from the extract air cover a large part of the heating demand.” (Univ. Prof. Dr Wolfgang Feist of the University of Innsbruck, quoted at

However, new buildings – despite the building sites which pepper most university campuses at the moment – are not the major part of university estates. Most universities have some much older building stock, and in the main the challenge will be making existing buildings more energy efficient: better insulation, and only using energy when necessary.

Currently (using the most recent Estate Management Statistics from HESA at the HE sector uses 7.8 Gigawatt hours* per year to heat and cool its buildings. About 20% of this is for residential buildings (halls of residence); the remaining 80% is for non-residential – classrooms, labs, lecture theatres, libraries, offices, corridors and so on.

HESA data also shows that universities spent £2billion on running buildings. This figure excludes staff, and is recurrent not capital expenditure. Most of this cost will be energy costs (other costs include, for example, the cost of materials for minor maintenance and decoration). Of the energy costs, some will be for heating and cooling, some will be to power equipment (IT, lighting and so on).

We need to make some assumptions to work out the financial benefit of reducing spend on energy. Looking at the finance data, I estimate that about 75% of the £2bn is energy spend. Of this, about half will be heating and cooling costs. So, multiplying through, A 50% reduction in energy use for heating would save universities £375m per year. Which means that there’s money available to spend on reducing emissions.

Techniques for reducing emissions are already being implemented. Better insulation means making windows airtight; fitting better blinds so that glare and solar heat can be managed when necessary; fitting sensors which lower heating systems when no-one is in the rooms. There are also ways to reduce demand by using space better. If there are fewer buildings, because teaching and office space is used more intensively, then you need to use less energy to heat them. (There’s a bonus here too – more intensively used spaces automatically need less heating because we humans are ourselves mini heat generators.)

Energy efficiency is a journey which universities have been on for some years now, so pans will be in place. What universities will need to do is look to see how these plans can be accelerated – don’t forget, there’s money for investment because of reduced future energy costs – and whether they go far enough. You should expect to see estates teams doing a lot of good housekeeping over the next few years.

So reducing demand for energy is fairly benign for universities. There are behaviour changes needed and investment, but there’s also a business case for it. My next blog – looking at the HE sector’s role in reducing transport emissions – gets more challenging.

* Yes, 7.8 Gigawatts hours is a big number. The average house in the UK uses 16,400 kilowatt-hours per year, and a gigawatt is a million times more than a kilowatt. The HE sector uses the same energy as about half a million houses.

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