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The road to net zero carbon

Dave Gorman, Director of Social Responsibility & Sustainability, reflects on progress made since the University announced its climate strategy – Zero by 2040 –  in November 2016.

Dave Gorman, Director of Social Responsibility & Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh

One year ago, we were delighted when the University, in recognition of the seriousness of the climate change challenge, agreed the ambitious goal of going carbon neutral by 2040.

Firstly, it’s worth saying that our climate strategy is about more than just going carbon neutral. The strategy is really about tackling the climate challenge in its widest sense, which means addressing both carbon reduction and the challenge of adaptation. It also means taking a whole institution approach to solving the problem- deploying the many talents of our staff, student and alumni community to help us do all we can and thinking about these issues across our operations, our investments, the good and services we buy, and the teaching and research that we do.

Let me give some examples to make this tangible.

Firstly, we have developed a high-level implementation plan to ensure we know what the key tasks are in making the strategy a reality. The plan includes interim targets on our way to 2020 and 2026, with ambition ramping up over time.

Secondly, we have created a £4m Sustainable Campus Fund, open to staff and students with ideas to reduce energy, reduce carbon and save us time, money and resources. Year 1 of the fund has recently completed and we are seeing very good carbon and financial benefits, and also unlocking many new conversations on energy, design and behaviour.

A comparison of the carbon emissions generated by various modes of travel

We have stepped up our programmes to support positive behaviours, including ambitious plans to explore alternatives to flights, a strengthening of our business expenses policy on UK flights, and detailed conversations with colleagues on energy reduction options. We’re also close to producing a much better tool and data for analysing and reporting travel including flights.

We run pan-University groups looking at design standards for buildings, minimising the carbon impact of our purchases, reducing the carbon footprint of our IT, making our labs more sustainable and many more. We have plans to create a ‘hub’ to showcase our climate research and active plans to do more ‘living labs’ projects harnessing the talents of our academics and students.

We have recently announced that we have moved £60m of our endowment funds into ‘positive’ funds to support the low carbon transition- investing in the sustainable technologies of the future, low carbon infrastructure and renewables. Fossil fuels now make up less than 1% of our investment portfolio.

We have just completed a major review of the case for investing at scale in renewables and hope to announce a way forward in 2018. Meantime, look out for more solar on campus and more and more use of electric vehicles. We’re also stepping up our efforts to support cycling, re-use of our PCs and furniture, and developing our climate partnerships.

Innovative start-ups hosted by ECCI

Speaking of partnerships, our colleagues at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation have been supporting partnerships across to world to support the low carbon transition, be that teaching, research, innovation or commercialisation. Closer to home, the ECCI host a wide range of innovative low carbon start-ups, and many of our academics are doing world-leading research on climate science, policy, earth science and technical solutions.

We are, long overdue, putting in place a framework to manage our climate adaptation, giving us a set of priorities and actions to get us going in an area we have previously neglected.

So, lots happening, but lots more to do.

What have we learned? That this is a marathon, not a sprint; and that early action builds credibility and support. That support for action across all of our staff, student and alumni community is very strong, but that people need advice, guidance and a framework and long-term vision for that support to be unlocked.

We think the long-term Zero by 2040 vision delivers just that- forcing us to ask ourselves tough questions about how we can grow and meet our other ambitions, whilst delivering our carbon neutral goal. What we’ve noticed though is that the goal also stimulates new thinking, and excitement, and interest. We think the opportunities to go about our work in new ways and build new relationships are enormous. One year on, we know we have much more to do, but we know by taking a whole institution approach and having everyone seeing this as an ambition that they can help deliver on, that we can get there.

Follow Dave Gorman on Twitter at @DaveGormanUoE

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