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Sustainability at Edinburgh: 2018 highlights, 2019 objectives

Dave Gorman, Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability, reflects on the University’s progress in 2018 and what lies ahead in 2019 and beyond.

2018 has been a landmark year for social responsibility and sustainability at the University of Edinburgh.

2018 highlights

We began the year by announcing full divestment from fossil fuels over the next 3 years, and ended by winning the ‘Sustainability Institution of the Year’ at the Green Gown Awards Ceremony for our pioneering work across a diverse range of the University’s activities. Of course, this is a tribute to the hard work of so many staff, students and alumni across the University’s operations, investments, research and teaching. By caring about ‘SRS’ issues and bringing them into your work, you have made the University a better force for good.

We are committed to full divestment by the end of 2020, building on the £60m of investments we made in renewables and sustainable technologies during 2017. We continued to progress our Climate Change Strategy, with work to reduce energy consumption and to assess our vulnerability to climate change across the estate. We secured a £5 million loan from the Scottish Funding Council to progress a package of solar and energy efficiency investments, including a major solar farm at Easter Bush to be constructed in 2019.

Our carbon emissions were down almost five per cent on last year and we are on track to meet our target to reduce carbon emissions per million pounds spend by 50 per cent by 2025. Colleagues opened the hugely ambitious Low Carbon College in partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Elsewhere on the international stage, we further strengthened our joint working with colleagues at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, the University of British Columbia and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chilé.

We approved plans to introduce a new levy of single-use coffee cups in 2018 and agreed a new waste strategy, with a new emphasis on reuse and circular economy. Drinking water provision has been reviewed and new accessible drinking water points are being installed across the University. Meanwhile our PC Reuse Project went from strength to strength with over 1,400 machines being reused, as well as over 2,000 other items of IT equipment.

The University held a joint event with the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment to discuss how to address modern slavery issues through our investments. We also invested £1.5 million in support for local social enterprises, and launched the highly successful Power Up Scotland – a social enterprise mentoring programme – in collaboration with Big Issue Invest, the Scottish Government, Brodies LLP and Aberdeen Standard Investments.

We introduced a new community grants scheme and distributed over £90,000 to local groups across the city region and created a new section on our website to keep local people and communities better informed, as well as launching a new local community newsletter.

2019 and beyond

We are proud of these and many more achievements from colleagues. We know that we can do more, and we are committed to continuing to lower our environmental impact, improve our positive impact on society and work with others to do even more.

So, what do we want to achieve this year? Building on the increasing awareness about waste and especially plastics, we want to explore how we can become a circular economy University, reducing our plastic use even further and seeking even more opportunities for re-use and low-carbon design. We want to grow our successful PC re-use project and support local businesses that re-use, re-condition and recycle IT and electrical equipment.

We’re excited to have made commitments to social investments for social good and expect to announce more investments as the year progresses, as well as exploring how we can support our students who want to take the leap and establish social enterprises. We continue to share our learning on what it means to be a responsible investor with other Universities, including exploring a new network for sharing and collaboration.

On climate change, we hope to adopt new rules for how we design our buildings and labs for a low-carbon world. We want to continue to invest £1m a year in low-carbon and renewable technologies on campus through our Sustainable Campus Fund and to reduce the carbon footprint of our IT and data centres. We are working with Zero Waste Scotland to explore what the future of low-carbon heating is on campus, and we have more work to do to make the case for off-site low-carbon investments, and for reducing the carbon impacts of our global travel.

We want to strengthen our projects with local communities, including several rounds of new community grants schemes and piloting ways we can open up our buildings at night to community and local groups. We’re also exploring how we can secure community benefits from our major construction and IT contracts.

Increasingly, we think sustainability and social responsibility is something students want to get involved in, both as a learning opportunity but also as a way to improve their experience during their time at the University. We are looking at how we can develop co-curricular activities, provide more opportunities and training for students and staff, and link staff and student volunteering to the needs of the city and surrounding area.

Finally, we are committed to the UN sustainable development goals, so look out for more activity as we map out how the University already contributes to these vital global goals and what more we can do.

As the University refreshes its strategic plan, we look forward to sharing our own refresh of how the University is going to become increasingly socially responsible and sustainable in the years to come.

Where you come in

As ever, we rely on the support, inspiration and commitment of our staff, students and alumni to make positive changes. There are many ways you can get involved in making the University more socially responsible and sustainable, such as:

We look forward to working with you in 2019!

Follow Dave Gorman on Twitter at @DaveGormanUoE or email him at

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