In recent years higher education providers have made efforts to improve sustainability. With many universities making sustainability pledges and declaring climate emergencies. By October 2021, 140 universities had made commitments to reduce carbon emissions by 78% by 2035.

The University of Nottingham

The University of Nottingham is at the forefront of sustainability in HE, setting ambitious carbon reduction targets across its campuses. By 2030 the university aims to reduce its emissions by 63%, with an aspiration of reaching net-zero by 2040, and absolute zero by 2050. They are also supporting Nottingham City Council in its aim to become the UK’s first zero-carbon city by 2028.

We spoke to Andy Nolan, the Director of Development and Sustainability at the University of Nottingham about how he is leading the work turning these ambitions into reality.

MGC: Could you tell us about your role at the University

of Nottingham?

Andy: My role at the university is as development sustainability director, and I’m responsible for the University’s capital delivery program. That includes all of the major refurbishments, the new build projects that we might take forward and anything else really that kind of falls in the sphere of construction projects. Over the last couple of years too, I’ve been responsible for developing the University estate development framework and the master plans for each of the 5 campuses that we have in the UK.

In the sphere of my development work and my sustainability work covers all of those campuses. […] Then, I also have a little bit of an advisory role with our overseas campuses in China and Malaysia on the sustainability side, my responsibilities include the University’s carbon management plan. It’s a wider sustainability strategy that picks up things like waste management, travel and transport, biodiversity, increasingly things around our energy spend, and energy consumption. And that’s a big deal for the University right now with gas prices and everything going on going in the wrong direction and generally and a real emphasis over the last sort of 18 months or so around engagement and communication. So it’s a pretty broad role.

MGC: Between 2010 and 2020, the University of Nottingham reduced carbon emissions by nearly 40%. Could you tell us about how the University achieved this?

Andy: In 2009, HEFCE made it very clear to universities that there was an expectation of them achieving quite significant carbon reduction targets, so a lot of universities set up carbon management plans. Nottingham was no different from that. The university published its first carbon management plan in 2010. The question is how did we reduce carbon by 40% since then? 

A big help was as a result of the national grid decarbonising over time. […] Then we implemented relatively small projects across the university that had a lot of useful impacts for decarbonisation. We’ve done a lot of work around fume cupboards and things like that. The University has over 600 plus fume cupboards across the science and engineering estate, and each of those fume cupboards uses the equivalent amount of energy as a domestic house in the UK. We’ve done a lot to improve fume cupboards by removing old ones, upgrading existing ones, and looking at ways in which they use so reducing the ventilation rates and within safe levels. We did lots of small things like this but they made a difference to decarbonisation.

There’s been a lot of emphasis on relatively small-scale renewable energy schemes across the campus too, roof-based solar thermal, solar PV as well as some biomass and biofuel type projects in some of our buildings. These are just some of the smaller changes we have adopted as a university to improve sustainability.

Smaller changes help improve building management systems to help us control heat loss more effectively. The larger-scale projects took a little longer to implement over the last 10-12 years and have included things like integrated PV arrays that we’ve put in place across two of our sites. We also established a new gas CHP heat network which we will assess as time moves on to ensure we have the most sustainable systems in place across the campuses.

[…] It has not been one big change though as you can see, and the changes made are addressing all 3 emission scopes. Communication has been a core part of the changes, especially when engaging with scope 3 emissions. As a university, we are trying to help staff and students make their own decisions around carbon reduction. With better communication, we can help them make more informed choices so they can live greener lives.

MGC: How is the University working towards reducing gas and electricity emissions by 2030?

Andy: In 2019, the university published this updated decarbonisation strategy and after quite a long period of consultation, one of the strong emerging themes of that strategy was to support the City of Nottingham’s ambitions around carbon reduction and to commit to delivering sustainable development goals.

Andy discusses decarbonising heat

We considered this holistically, looking at the three different facets (emission scopes) of how the university could contribute to the city’s aims.[…] Scope one and two emissions going forward are going to be a real emphasis on the reduction in electrical consumption and decarbonising heat at the university. Decarbonising heat is a challenge that everyone’s facing right now. It’s difficult to reduce the carbon intensity of natural gas, so you can only effectively reduce the amount of gas you consume or blend it with other gasses to limit usage. There’s been work done around hydrogen to see whether hydrogen injection might be the solution to reducing the reliance on natural gas.

We need to consider everything we can do over the next 20 years to reach net-zero carbon. As I’ve highlighted, decarbonising heat is going to be a focus on reducing the demand for heat, wherever that comes from and that will mean several things:

 Firstly, we need to invest in the buildings we already have so they’re more energy-efficient. A lot of our building stock is quite old and could be more thermally efficient. Right now, we’re undertaking work to understand where those investments are needed so that we can improve that energy efficiency. This will look at how we can reduce the amount of cold air that enters buildings through windows and doorways, protecting the building from external temperatures.

[…]Our overall strategy will be to reduce the demand from buildings (for heat), but then the short term, move to more efficient gas boilers and then the longer-term aim is to invest in ground source or air source heat to take the demands away from that gas network altogether. […]I guess the other thing to factor in is where we can consolidate our estate and start to reduce the number of spaces that we need to use all of the time.

We’ve identified the demands on the heating systems and we need to explore the opportunities available to reduce this demand. We’ve addressed scope 1 and 2 emissions, but there are other things to do around scope 3 emissions to people the opportunity to take responsibility for their sustainability journey and change some of the things for themselves. Whilst the average member of staff or a student at the university won’t have any control over internal temperatures, they’ve got a lot of influence over their personal choices around sustainability.[…] These changes made in everyday life can help the university with its net-zero carbon goal.

The top four areas of our scope 3 emissions are construction, paper products, food and business travel. I would argue everybody can take some influence over the food and the business travel elements of what they’re doing. For me, it’s empowering to allow them to make greener choices for themselves.

With paper, what we’ve seen over the pandemic is a massive reduction in printer consumables, including paper, because people have been working from home and we’ve also seen an 80% reduction in print on our campus during the pandemic. However, what we don’t know is how much print has gone on at home. But we suspect it’s nowhere near the 80% gap on campus.

Of course, the other scope 3 emission we need to address is the construction supply chain. As part of my job, I’ve got the opportunity to be both the advocate for sustainability and the appropriate and sustainable development of our campuses. We’ve made some really big commitments in our estate development framework, one of which includes getting us down to no gas in new builds and refurbishments.

[…]By adopting agile working and deploying sustainable strategies, we can do this. We can reduce the amount of real estate that we have and as a result, the number of spaces that we need to heat. All of this combined is really what underpins the next carbon management plan.

MGC: How have the Green Rewards App and, Go!Campaign, engaged staff and students with the sustainability strategies in place at the university?

Andy: One of the hardest challenges for any University is being able to have an effective way of communicating with the students and staff that study and work at our university. As I reflected earlier, when we consulted on the University strategy, sustainability was possibly the number one priority that came out.

Andy discusses the Go! Campaign

We created the Go campaign, which is all about empowering people to get on and do things and make decisions for themselves regarding sustainability. We worked with a design agency to develop it and launched the campaign in 2021. It has become the framework we use to communicate to staff and students about sustainability.

The Green Rewards app is part of this campaign. By looking at what other universities were doing, we were able to understand what successful apps were already present in the market to encourage sustainability. An example of this is the Jump platform, which we, like many other universities use. […] Working together with colleagues at Nottingham Trent, we’ve used the same branding to present a unified strategy on Jump, across the universities. Currently, we have around 1000 active users now and we are making some headway in terms of the tons of carbon that we saved through this strategy.

Green Rewards is about rewarding people for making sustainable decisions. The app is designed in a way to promote a sense of competition between users to improve sustainability. You can participate as an individual and receive an award if you are the top scorer each week or month, vouchers are given out for this too to incentivise individuals. There are also rewards for sustainability changes made in teams on the app as we believe that some of the biggest changes can be made when people work as a team.

Andy discusses the green rewards app

[…]Of course, the app needs to be renewed and promoted every year to engage the new cohort of students every September. Over time, this will start to build up, especially since we have a unified campaign with Nottingham Trent on the app. What’s nice is that not only do the two universities use the app, but many local authorities have also adopted it. If you’re a citizen of Nottingham or Nottinghamshire, you can be actively using green rewards now like staff and students at the universities. I think we’re the first in the country to have this opportunity to engage everybody in the same programme. As a result, we can see what the cities’ carbon emissions savings are through everyone’s individual behavioural choices.

MGC: What action plans are in place to reduce the scope three emissions and waste and how you work to reduce these emissions?

Andy: I spoke about this earlier, but to build on what I’ve said, we need to consider how staff and students travel to and from the university. […] Except students with disabilities, generally speaking, students aren’t given car parking permits for the campus so the vast majority of them travel by more sustainable means. We also provide an instant campus bus service, which carries over a million students between campuses in a normal operating year.

[…] Going online has meant that we’ve actively reduced the need for people to travel as often as they did. I don’t commute to the campus five days a week, instead, it’s two to three days, with the rest of my time working remotely. […]The big challenge for travel though is around business travel, and how we bring students in from all over the world. Those students travel back and forth between their home countries, and that’s a real challenge for us to decide to what extent that travel is our responsibility or the responsibility to the student.

Andy on encouraging greener choices

We have greater influence over staff business travel. Whether it’s for conferences or fieldwork research, generally, all sorts of business travel happen because of our reputation worldwide. […]Recently, we have held several town hall events with staff to talk through what the issues and implications are of reducing our air travel. As a result of this, we’re looking to introduce some new policies early in 2022 that will make commitments to reducing carbon emissions from air travel. We’re not saying air travel will be banned, but we’re looking to actively reduce its impact on university emissions.

In terms of procurement and waste, we need to work with our supply chains to share the ambitions we have of net-zero carbon. Our procurement team at the University are active in this space, so it is about communication. We’re doing a lot of work around ESG and socially responsible procurement and looking at the whole set of issues within the framework of environmental and social improvement performance. […] These supply chains have impacts we still have yet to understand all of them so are giving a lot of focus to these areas in the next two or three years.

MGC: How can other universities take inspiration from the University of Nottingham?

There are a lot of universities out there doing some great things, and I don’t mind admitting that we’ve listened to what they’re doing and incorporated some of it into our strategies. We can all learn from each other when it comes to improving sustainability in Higher Education.

The key thing for us has been strong leadership at the top of the organisation from our Vice-Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and the rest of the executive board. They have championed sustainability on the University’s behalf and embraced the strategy. It is because of this that we’ve been able to embed sustainability and carbon reduction at the very top level of the university, which has been a vital part of our success so far. That success flows through not only the carbon reduction strategy but all of the strategies in place across every department. It manifests itself in all aspects of teaching, learning and working at the university.

Andy discusses working with other universities

We’ve developed an estate development framework where those ambitions are set out in our achievement aims of reducing waste, energy and gas usage at the university. We are really happy with how the sustainability strategy is progressing and we actively share our experiences of it with other universities to help them on their sustainability journey.

 […] I think partnership and sharing ideas is going to be key to improving carbon emissions and trying to get that net-zero strategy across higher education.

MGC: How is the University working with the City Council to achieve net-zero?

Nottingham City Council is an incredibly ambitious and highly achieving council in terms of its commitment to carbon reduction and fuel poverty. It’s fantastic to work in a city where this ambition is shared between the two universities and the City Council. We’re working with them on several different levels, on a very day to day, practical level, we are working with their planners and highways teams to look at how we can improve our overall performance as a whole city.

[…]There’s an initiative called the Universities for Nottingham where the two universities are declaring and working with the local authority on some major strategic objectives: sustainability, health and wellbeing, education attainment and economic regeneration.

With regards to sustainability, I’ve already mentioned the green rewards app, but we are also going to be working in the city centre with our new Castle Meadow campus too. Establishing that campus means working closely with the city council on planning, sustainability objectives around flood risk, travel and transport, and carbon. We’ll be working with the city to understand what the plan is for decarbonising the heat network in the area over the next ten years so that we can have an effective solution for heat and power on the campus.

We’re not only working with Nottingham City Council but other local authorities too on projects like large scale renewable energy generation. This means we are actively exploring solar PV and wind power with our local authority partners to find the most viable renewable energy sources for the local area.

[..]As a large organisation we believe we will be here in 100 years and we need to work with local authority partners to find these sustainable options to ensure this. As a university, we can generate and produce (energy) for ourselves, and any surplus can be sold back into the grid to support our partners in the city. This is only possible if we work together.

The journey starts with identifying the best renewable energy sources, then we can work with the planning authorities to ensure these sources are appropriately located in the local environment.

MGC: How can the government better support universities to reduce carbon emissions by 2050?

Andy: They need to recognise universities are a major generator of carbon emissions and that direct and indirect interventions with them could help the UK’s carbon emissions portfolio.

[…]The government has made some commitments to reducing the use of natural gas, however, we are aware it’s a big job. There are hundreds of thousands of gas boilers all around the country that need to be retrofitted or replaced with sustainable solutions. Universities allow the government to work with a much smaller number of organisations, where they can make significant inroads into carbon reduction through working proactively. Tax relief would also benefit decarbonising higher education, VAT on energy-efficient products and services could impact the viability of sustainability strategies.

[…]Universities are huge consumers of travel services and Nottingham, in particular, would benefit from the use of electrical vehicles, buses and trams to achieve net-zero.[…] There’s a real role for public transport in decarbonisation, moving 50 people on an electric or hydrogen bus is better for the environment than 60 cars on the road. We need to see renewed and improved investment in public transport nationwide.

In the construction sector, we would benefit from improvements changes to investment prices as at the moment you get better rates on creating new builds than on refurbishments. At Nottingham, our strategy is all about refurbishment, so any help there would be beneficial to us.

Other than that the other big influence on Higher Education will be the DfE sustainability and climate change strategy. In that we are hoping for an emphasis on the role that universities can play, not just in terms of how they operate, but what they give back to society in terms of access to education around sustainability and climate change. By recognising this role, it allows universities to train workforces so they embrace the green and low carbon opportunities that are out there.

Key Takeaways:

  • Universities need to work together and share best practice to help decarbonise higher education
  • Even if the changes made are small, they add up and make a big impact
  • Staff and students are happy to change habits, universities need to provide them with tools to make these behavioural changes
  • The government needs to provide better support and guidance to universities to develop their sustainability strategies

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In recent years higher education providers have made efforts to improve sustainability; most UK universities now have sustainability pledges. The University of Nottingham is at the forefront of this movement, with carbon reduction targets in place across all its campuses. We spoke to Andy Nolan, the Director of Sustainability and Development at the University of Nottingham about turning these ambitions into reality.

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