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Path from the pandemic: Feeling the heat

Image: Grace Gay for Research Professional News

Ahead of COP26, Research Professional News examines universities’ efforts to adapt to climate change

For more than a century, students around the world fought to gain a place at Imperial College London to study how to extract oil from deep underground. This year, that comes to an end.

A once-thriving global oil industry saw generations of students wanting to study the subject, but growing awareness about the dangers of climate change has prompted learners to turn their backs on activities that are harmful to the planet.

With dwindling numbers of students who want to study petroleum-related subjects, staff at Imperial’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering used last year’s coronavirus lockdowns to reflect on its future direction. The result? The master’s degree course in petroleum geoscience has been cut. 

“We simply do not have the applicants to make the course self-sustaining, and because a principle part of that course is discovering new petroleum resources—and we know that is something that’s not compatible with dealing with climate change—we’ve decided to discontinue it,” says Martin Blunt, a professor at the department.

Serious challenges

Imperial’s decision reflects the struggle that universities face as they try to adapt their research and teaching to meet the challenges of the climate emergency. As Blunt says, most engineering and earth science departments “will have activities where fossil fuels are somehow intrinsic to that activity, and of course they will be going through a similar transition”.

Imperial’s master’s course in petroleum engineering will also get the chop from next autumn. In its place, students will learn a different set of geology and engineering skills on a new Geo-energy with Machine Learning and Data Science master’s opening next year.

Staff, alumni and industry partners all back the move towards a more sustainable future, and in a consultation held earlier this year there was near unanimous support for the change. “Even our colleagues in the oil industry agreed, ‘Yes, this is the way the world is heading,’” Blunt says.

Imperial is not alone in making tough decisions about its future activities. Many universities have set targets to reduce their carbon output and become greener, and with the UN’s Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) being held in Glasgow at the end of this month and through early November, many UK institutions are examining what more they can do. 

Some areas of teaching and research will be harder to decarbonise than others. But much progress has been made in recent years on campuses more generally. The University of Bristol became the first UK university to declare a climate emergency in April 2019, while the University of Leeds has pledged to become free of single-use plastics by 2023, and the University of Cambridge is among several institutions that have promised to divest from fossil fuels (see below).

Meanwhile, data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency in August found that since 2015-16, carbon emissions at universities have fallen by 27 per cent.

As Asher Minns, executive director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, explains, higher education institutions do seem to be taking environmental challenges seriously. “I wouldn’t say that any university is as green as perhaps it would want to be, but I’m very happy to say that universities are making much bigger and better inroads into sustainability than they have done in the past,” he says.

Building waste

But before universities congratulate themselves on a job well done, there are several riddles to solve. Minns points out that most institutions have expanded their student intake in the past decade, and they have built new buildings to house those new students.

Construction is a carbon-intensive business, and any new building brings embedded carbon that universities must take into account. Minns—who is also leading public engagement for the COP26 University Network, a group of around 80 universities aiming for tangible outcomes from the climate summit—explains that “if you are actually expanding as an organisation, while trying to contract your carbon emissions, your energy use—however you want to measure it—those are two things going in different directions”.

Existing buildings pose their own problems, particularly for universities with older estates, as they cost more to heat in winter and cool in summer. The University of Edinburgh, which houses many older buildings, had the highest scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions—covering all output except that from supply chain, transport and waste—in 2019-20 among the institutions that returned data to Hesa for that year.

A spokesperson for the university stressed that while Edinburgh divested its financial portfolio from fossil fuels earlier this year and it has installed a solar photovoltaic farm to generate renewable energy, there is no simple fix. “Due to the scale of our estate, the age of many of the buildings, and our extensive energy-intensive research portfolio, it is inevitable that emissions will, in some areas, be significant,” the spokesperson said. “These are vitally important issues, and we will continue to identify ways to address them.”

Minns says that a lot of the improvement in universities’ emissions and energy efficiency is down to better building design. With older buildings that are protected by law, major alterations to improve their efficiency can be difficult. “It would be better, often, to knock down the buildings and rebuild them, from an energy efficient and environmental perspective, but of course you can’t do that if it’s listed,” says Minns.

Reducing emissions

Those problems aside, universities have been working to reduce their emissions in the past few years. In some areas, the Covid-19 pandemic pushed down universities’ emissions even more. Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions fell by 10 per cent in the 2019-20 academic year, and energy consumption fell by 7 per cent, as lockdown meant that far fewer people were using campus resources.

Institutions will be asking themselves how to take these savings in carbon emissions and energy consumption into the post-pandemic future, as they use the disruption of Covid-19 to reassess their activities. 

Agreement needed

With the rise of online learning for students and less pressure to fly vast distances to attend a conference, universities could now start paying more attention to their surroundings. Minns explains that universities are ideal institutions to become “place-based leaders” when it comes to sustainability. “The role of universities in their location often hasn’t been fully tapped into,” he says.

In Hull, that is exactly what the local university is trying to do. The University of Hull is tapping into a global need to decarbonise estuaries and ports, which are at risk from rising sea levels, by developing an expertise in green energy to support its sea-facing city.

Daniel Parsons, director of the university’s energy and environment institute, says the university “should be the innovation testbed” and the “research and knowledge exchange powerhouse of the region”.

Hull claims it is ahead of its “ambitious” target to become carbon-neutral by 2027, helped by plans to generate more green energy in-house. 

Parsons feels that a sector-wide concordat on reaching next zero would be “a really simple step that we can take as a sector to address this through collaboration”.

An initiative launched by vice-chancellors’ body Universities UK on 20 October might just fit the bill, with 140 universities having pledged to cut their carbon emissions in line with the government’s ambition to reduce scope 1 and 2 emissions by 78 per cent by 2035.

With growing pressure from students and the public for their higher education institutions to put sustainability first, discussions at COP26 of just how close we are to climate disaster could push universities into taking even more radical action.  

Full divestment?

One way in which universities are trying to deal with their impact on the planet is by divesting their funds from fossil fuels. In October 2020, the University of Cambridge set out plans to fully divest its £3.5 billion endowment fund from fossil fuels by 2030, even though it had previously decided against full divestment. 

Cambridge’s decision followed significant pressure from staff and student groups; other universities, including the University of Sheffield, Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Sussex, have promised full divestment from fossil fuels.

But full divestment takes time. In May this year, the Wellcome Trust, which has an endowment of roughly £29 billion, pointed out that its investments in oil and gas will “remain in our portfolio for a while”. It said that while addressing climate change is “central” to its mission, the terms of its deals “bind us to a fixed length of investment”. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight