Delivering carbon performance in the universities market


Delivering carbon performance in the universities market

By Dan Ulanowsky, Principal Sustainability and Energy Advisor

Universities - centres of change

As centres of learning, research and influence, universities have a crucial role in meeting the challenges posed by climate change. In addition, they are also responsible for a significant amount of energy use and associated carbon emissions. Recognising this, in 2010, the universities market committed to a 43% reduction in absolute carbon emissions by 2020 and 83% by 2050 against 2005 levels [1].

The rising costs of energy, along with the impact of carbon taxes provided financial incentive for reducing energy whilst targets were further strengthened by the action of the funding councils, which linked their capital allocations to carbon [2]. This led to a large number of energy saving projects being initiated across the market.

However, analysis of recent university Estate Management Record data shows that whilst some are making progress, the vast majorities are falling behind and may not meet their 2020 targets [3].

The challenge – sustainable growth

The lack of progress can be linked to a range of factors but, in general, universities have raised the following issues as presenting the greatest barriers to achieving the stated targets [4]:

  • Lack of top level interest
  • Lack of funding
  • Business case not meeting financial requirements (ROI)
  • Energy intensive nature of scientific research
  • Lack of opportunity awareness
  • Lack of confidence in the outcome
  • Challenges of historic campus buildings

There is also a fundamental issue with the targets themselves which were set on an absolute basis and do not take account of the growth in the market. Indeed, when emissions are assessed in terms of emissions per student or squared metre basis, the carbon performance of the market shows the improvements that have been made.

Nonetheless, with the UK’s overall carbon target remaining and the sustainability credentials of universities under scrutiny from their investors and students [5], a university’s carbon performance remains important.

The solution – joined up thinking and action

The market has recognised the need for a refresh of the approach to carbon management and bodies such as the AUDE and EUAC’s Sustainability Exchange, provide forums for sharing best practice in estate energy and carbon management.

Universities are undertaking reviews of their original carbon management plans and re-setting targets (both relative and absolute) in line with their growth strategies.

A recent market solution is that of the Energy Performance Contract (EPC). An EPC is a private sector offer guaranteed solution to achieving energy reduction measures which can include finance. This has seen significant take up in in the NHS and Local Authorities though frameworks such as RE:FIT, however the higher education sector has been slow to take up these contracts [6].

For the most part, EPCs have been resisted because they require a higher level of client engagement and involve long timescales, whilst the impact of failed PFI schemes may also be a factor. A further reason for slow take up by universities may also be the complex and evolving nature of the university estate including existing contractual arrangement on plant and assets. However, EPCs may provide a suitable vehicle for some to unlock additional savings on university estates and help plug the gap in carbon targets as demonstrated by some universities who have chosen the EPC route including Bath Spa University [7].

Nevertheless, talking with colleagues at a number of universities there appears to be apprehension around entering into EPCs. This suggests the existing model perhaps needs working on, which we’re exploring with stakeholders.

PBA has extensive experience working with universities on sustainable development and energy-related projects such as the examples below.

If you would like to find out more about how we can help deliver your university’s energy strategy please get in touch.

Related projects


[1] Higher Education Funding Council for England


[3] Higher Education Statistics Agency (EMR 2014/15 data)

[4] Carbon reduction target and strategy for higher education in England-Report of the consultation seminars