Getting to Zero- The University of Edinburgh’s Approach to Tackling Climate Change

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The University of Edinburgh recently launched a new long-term strategy to play its role in tackling climate change. The University’s Director of Social Responsibility and Strategy explains more…

The United Kingdom, along with more than 170 other countries, officially ratified the Paris Agreement recently. The agreement sets out a global target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and a decisive call-to-action to mitigate dangerous climate change caused by human activity. Despite recent political developments we think the direction of travel is clear. As our senior Vice-Principal and Student President said:

“The time for debate on the science has long since passed, as has the time for arguments on whether to act. In this strategy, we commit to long-term goals to ensure we are leading the way in tackling climate change, across all of our activities and recognising the core strength of the University as a globally connected, socially committed research and learning organisation”.

So, what have we committed to in practice?


Climate Strategy

The University of Edinburgh has committed to become zero carbon by 2040. The University's Climate Strategy 2016 lays out a comprehensive whole institution approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation in order to achieve its ambitious targets.

To meet this challenge, and to support Scotland's and the world's transition to a low carbon economy, the University of Edinburgh will reduce its carbon emissions per million pounds of turnover by 50% from a 2007/08 baseline, and will become a net zero carbon university by 2040. We will take action on research, learning and teaching, operations, responsible investment, and will investigate renewables opportunities. We will use the University’s five campuses as living laboratories for learning and to test innovative ideas that can be replicated elsewhere.


Energy challenge

Energy use makes up the majority of our carbon emissions, and with rising costs approaching £20m per year, energy use has become a huge challenge for the University.

That’s why one of our biggest programmes is the Switch energy saving campaign. We’re working with Estates colleagues to initially save 10% from the University’s energy bills over two years.

But we are going further with the launch of our new £3m Sustainable Campus Fund. The Sustainable Campus Fund is an internal investment vehicle that provides financing to parties within the University for implementing energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other sustainability projects that generate cost savings. We have allocated £3 million for the first 3 years of the fund, and the fund is off to a great start with a dozen projects identified saving energy, money and carbon.


Investments, renewables and low carbon technology

While the University has already invested more than £30 million in low carbon and renewable technology on campus, a new expert group will be established to review what further investments in renewable and smart energy technologies could be made.

The review will explore measures such as solar, offsite solar and wind as well as evaluating the future fuel supply of our existing energy centres and rapid developments in demand management and energy storage.

This follows the University’s decision in May 2015 to use its investments and procurement power to support the transition to a low carbon economy and to divest from the most destructive fossil fuel companies. Within weeks, £2.5 million pounds of investment was removed from firms involved in the high polluting areas of coal and tar sands. Our professional advisers have calculated the carbon footprint of our direct investments is down 90% since 2008.

We are also on track to open a new Combined Heat and Power (CHP) scheme at our Easter Bush campus, our fifth such plant and one that will save us thousands of tonnes of carbon emissions.


Sustainable Travel .

The University already has seven small electric vans and five petrol hybrid vehicles. Thirteen charging stations have been installed so that staff and visitors can charge personal electric vehicles. We are committed to moving towards an all-electric fleet over time. We also plan to issue advice on possible alternatives to flying for some of our UK and long-haul journeys and encourage a range of active travel programme to encourage walking, cycling and public transport- with commuting carbon down 30%.


Research  and teaching excellence

The University is home to a wide range of centres of climate and energy expertise. We undertake ground breaking research into renewable energy, and teach a range of innovative programmes in carbon management.

Notable research includes:

  • The School of Engineering’s world-class test facilities for wave and tidal energy, the FloWave Ocean Energy Research Facility.

  • A project to develop clean energy access for 250,000 people in Kenya, India, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

  • The Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage partnership, which is the largest grouping of high-level carbon capture and storage researchers in the UK.

  • The Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation- established to bring together low-carbon leaders with practitioners from business and the public sector.

  • The UK Biochar Research Centre works to investigate a type of sustainable charcoal as a way to fertilize crops and take greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere.

  • Project Elpis – Two Edinburgh students are using their technical skills to provide a lifeline for refugees, helping hundreds of people contact families and access vital information using solar powered charging points.

We are also equipping our students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed and indeed drive a low carbon world- from leading masters programmes on sustainable energy, carbon finance and carbon management, to our soon-to-be-launched online course for any student interested in sustainability and climate change.


Next Steps

Launching the strategy and setting out our vision are important, but they are of course only the first steps. We are already establishing our renewables review group and our campus fund is providing popular. We will produce an implementation plan in 2017 and ensure we track progress but perhaps the most important message is this. The University of Edinburgh sees climate change as a vital issue, we are committed to ensuring all parts of the University play a role in tackling it, and we are on a journey to a zero carbon future. We look forward to working with our partners, and our staff student and alumni community to making it a reality.


Get in touch with David via his MyRSA, or leave a comment below.

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