Comment & Analysis

The challenges of decarbonisation in the university sector

Siobhan Wren and Matt Rooney, Engineering Policy Unit

...UK universities are currently on track to achieving a 13% reduction in emissions by 2020 from the 2005 baseline
...UK universities are currently on track to achieving a 13% reduction in emissions by 2020 from the 2005 baseline

In a recent report on local energy - "Exploring the evolution of low carbon local energy" - the Institution of Mechanical Engineers recommended that university campuses should increasingly be used as test beds for new energy technologies. This should help universities decarbonise, but there are many challenges that lie ahead, even in just quantifying and allocating the emissions the sector should be responsible for. Siobhan Wren and Matt Rooney from the IMechE’s Engineering Policy Unit explore the issues.

Universities in the UK have legally binding targets 1to reduce emissions by 43% from 2005-2020, which were established to help meet the UK’s carbon reduction commitment set out in the Climate Change Act 2008. Alongside this, they have also agreed to work towards reaching net zero by 2050, however, looking at recent statistics it seems that some are struggling to meet their initial targets.

According to the University Carbon Progress Report 2018i, UK universities are currently on track to achieving a 13% reduction in emissions by 2020 from the 2005 baseline. This is a long way off from the initial target. 127 institutions initially agreed to the 43% reduction target, and of those, only 52 are set to meet or exceed it. It is also reported that a third of those universities that are set to meet their targets had reduced the initial target set in 2008ii. This group of 127 institutions includes 20 Russell Group Universities and they account for more than half of the total sector of emissions. From those 20, only two are meeting their emission reduction targets, the University of Leeds and the University of Birmingham.

Most universities that are working towards reducing their carbon emissions have come up with a Carbon Management Plan which identifies the problems and presents solutions. However, there are many challenges which prevent universities from achieving their goals, including just measuring their total (direct and indirect) emissions.2

For example, universities tend to have a high air travel footprint and it is one area where significantly reducing emissions may be challenging.iii Academics travel regularly to conduct research, network and attend international conferences. Reducing this aspect of the job might demotivate what many academics may see as a crucial part of their work and a perk. It could also be a disadvantage for universities if they reduce their international travel, as many benefit from the research and networking that can arise resulting in more projects and better connections. Milena Buchsiv, an Associate Professor at the University of Leeds, suggested “environmental assessments” should become a requirement when an academic is considering travelling for their work. The environmental assessment would be submitted to a carbon calculator which would analyse the harm the journey would cause, and then the academics and university can weigh up the costs and decide on whether the good outweighs the bad. Precise data on academic air travel is difficult to obtain as they do not all collect or publish this information. According to Milena Buchs, in the past three years, only 43% of universities have willingly submitted their air travel data to their national funding bodies.

When looking at non-travel emissions, those directly or indirectly related to the campus, comparing universities directly against each other on their percentage reduced over time may not accurately reflect the amount of effort being made by the institutions. All universities in the UK differ in size and history, which can make it a lot more difficult for some to reduce their emissions, compared to others. Large city universities might find that a lot more planning and effort needs to be implemented as they have a larger area of space and a larger quantity of students/staff to take into consideration, and older universities might need to update their facilities to become more modern. Some universities also have independent colleges whose emissions are not strictly controlled or accounted for by the central university administration.

The cost of implementing the required changes to reduce emissions is said to have delayed action for some universities and led to them struggling to meet their targets. As well as the cost being a barrier for universities, the recent changes in public funding in the higher education sector has also made an impact on how universities are reducing their carbon emissions.v

To help the University of Cambridge to reduce their emissions, they adopted a 1.5-degree Science Based Target, and was one of the first universities in the World to do sovi. Most universities are following this lead and have started to use a Science Based Target to help identify and create realistic targets for their Scope 3 emissions, such as staff travel, as they are difficult to control. These emissions represent the majority of university’s greenhouse gas inventories. Challenges around data quality and degree of control makes it difficult for institutions to know how to successfully reduce these emissions.vii

Our universities have ambitious decarbonisation plans and should be commended for this, but the challenge of emissions reporting and accounting must be addressed in parallel. It is difficult for universities to accurately measure the emissions they use every year, therefore trying to manage and cut them proves to be a difficult task. As most reports have indicated, universities are contributing towards reducing their carbon emissions and have well thought out plans in order to achieve this. However, the challenges that universities face prove a problem that it is not a quick, cheap and easy process.


  1. At least this was the case under the previous governing structure. With the creation of the Office for Students the requirement for universities in England to report emissions from their estates has been removed and so it is unclear whether the targets still exist.
  2. Universities classify their emissions as Scope 1, 2, and 3. Scope 1 emissions are directly under their own control on site, Scope 2 includes slightly indirect emissions like electricity usage, while Scope 3 includes things like staff travel.
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