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Building the tertiary education sector’s path to net zero

25 April 2023

The tertiary education sector is a major contributor to climate change in the UK. Leeds University noted that in 2021 “data from 537 institutions revealed they emitted more than 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) into the environment...  around 2.3% of the UK’s overall carbon footprint.”  

As a means of tackling this, in April 2022 the UK government released the policy paper Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems.  It set out guidance to not only reach the UK government’s 2050 net zero target but to accelerate change so we are the leading country globally by 2030. That has since been followed by The Royal Anniversary Trust’s Accelerating towards net zero report.  

Both outline robust ideas around how to combat carbon emissions and eventually eradicate them. The trust’s report delivered 14 recommendations to the UK government, focusing on a mixture of different bodies from local councils, the National Grid and the wider business community that can support the sector in its goals. 


Gillian Keegan, Education Secretary 

“The fight against climate change is one we will only win if we all work together. The UK’s world-leading higher education and further education sectors are creating a pipeline of talent to fill the key skills gaps that will be vital to our national response to climate change. Institutions from across the UK are working together towards our common goal to be net zero and I am hugely grateful for their work to date.”

What are the next steps for education trusts across the UK? 

The report sets out a strong pathway for net zero, but as mentioned, much of it relies on large-scale cooperation from several organisations across the UK. So, while not everything within it can be actioned at once, there are steps that can be undertaken now.  

The report revealed three core areas on which the sector should be outlining an immediate focus. These are reducing emissions across both the built environment and travel and transport, alongside focusing on developing a fully sustainable supply chain. 

Built environment 

The report outlines two striking facts. These are that direct and indirect emissions from buildings account for 23% of the UK’s total emissions, while the entire education sector (including schools) is the biggest construction commissioner in the country. 

While these statistics are stark, there are ways to work towards decarbonising buildings. Utilising renewable sources for energy procurement or opting for on-site generation are two methods of reducing the impact the energy you use has on the environment.  

Decreasing the amount of energy consumed is also a significant step forward. A full audit of how energy is used across each site is an excellent starting point for spotting efficiency opportunities. These will include procedures such as adopting LED lighting, double glazing installation, improving insulation and utilising automatic doors. 

Travel and transport 

Reducing “non-essential travel, shift mindsets and behaviour towards more ‘purposeful travel’" was at the core of the report. Alongside this, one of the 14 recommendations to the government was emphasising the need for “local councils to consult with local universities and large colleges on their sustainable transport plans”. 

Progress can be made on this sooner, with the initiative shown through Oxford University’s cycle support schemes. Alongside encouraging and making it easier for staff and students to use renewable transport, education organisations can also support working from home where roles permit, as well as installing electric vehicle charging points across campuses. 

The core challenge comes from off-setting “the significant impact that travel has on the sector’s overall Scope 3 emissions”. Tackling these on a holistic level requires an effective carbon reporting strategy, something we have helped across other sectors. 

Watch our Formulating your carbon reporting strategy webinar for further details on how to gain stronger visibility of the full spectrum of your emissions. 

Developing a more sustainable supply chain

Carbon net zero is impossible without cooperation across the supply chain. This collaboration is often intensive and requires a significant amount of supplier data which isn’t often readily available. This is one of the core areas for which partnership with a net zero consultant is arguably the most integral, as mapping all emissions remains a complex and lengthy process.  

The aforementioned carbon reporting is a cornerstone of tackling these issues, particularly as ‘establishing baseline data and reporting for the whole sector by 2025, is one of the core milestones of the report. The report also urges the government to work on a unified system across the full sector that makes data from reporting initiatives such as the Energy Savings opportunity scheme (ESOS), Procurement Policy Note 06/21 (PPN06/21) and Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting (SECR).  

You can gain greater clarity now by investing in a platform or by utilising lifecycle assessments such as EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations) from suppliers. These will enable you to gain a much clearer understanding of your Scope 3 emissions. 


The opportunity to educate

Education institutions don’t just have the responsibility to reduce and eliminate their emissions, they can nurture the individuals capable of doing it elsewhere. This makes investing in more sustainable measures a double-pronged opportunity; every undertaking can be utilised alongside curriculums and syllabuses to enrich students’ education. 

This opportunity isn’t just restricted to your students. One of the many case studies included in the report is from Exeter College and Exeter University, who are working alongside local councils to power the city’s own net zero drive through Exeter City Futures. And other stakeholders can benefit, with investors and employees both becoming increasingly drawn to green-minded organisations. 

Are you ready to take the next steps on your net zero journey? Book a call with one of our carbon experts through the form below to discover how Trident can help your education organisation.  

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