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Environment and Energy

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The staff within the University’s Environment and Energy Section (E&E) have always been a committed and hardworking bunch, but these days they are busier than ever. More emails and phone calls, more committee papers to write, more projects to deliver, more requests from departments for data or advice on how to reduce their environmental impact. The to-do list has never been bigger.

This is exactly how the Section wants it to be, of course. “For many years, the focus of our work has been on engaging staff and students on environmental sustainability and encouraging them to work with us”, says the Head of Environment and Energy, Joanna Chamberlain. “Now, they are coming to us and actively asking for our help. It’s great and, I believe, indicates a real shift in the collective consciousness of our staff and students around environmental issues”.

So what has changed?

Undoubtedly, a greater level of environmental awareness and concern across society as a whole is a key factor. Environmental issues are everywhere. In particular, younger generations are demanding that more be done to tackle the climate crisis, biodiversity emergency, plastic pollution, and other environmental challenges, and the unfair impacts that these are having across the world.

Amy Munro-Faure coordinates the University’s Living Laboratory for Sustainability, which aims to link up sustainability research with the University’s operations.

“We’ve definitely seen a big increase in student sign-ups for our initiatives including Engage for Change, the Carbon Challenge, sustainability careers workshops, and other events. We’re also noticing a greater level of commitment, and understanding of the issues, from students. This is really exciting as it means the positive environmental impact that they can have both at Cambridge and beyond has grown.”

More staff than ever before are also engaged with environmental issues across the University. Last year we saw a record number of Green Impact teams winning awards for their environmental achievements, with participation having grown by 39% over the past 4 years. Meanwhile our network of staff sustainability volunteers has increased by 33% in the last year alone!

Whilst some argue that the University still isn’t doing enough to address climate change, the commitment it made last year to reduce its direct carbon emissions to absolute zero by 2048 (with an aspiration to achieve this at least ten years earlier) has helped to push environmental sustainability higher up the organisation’s agenda. So, too, has the launch of Cambridge Zero, the University’s ambitious initiative to harness its research and expertise, and apply its influence, to deliver solutions to global environmental problems.

“Having the commitment of the University’s senior management has definitely played a key part in the shift we are seeing”, says Joanna. “We have worked with a network of committed staff members and students for a number of years, but many are in positions where driving systemic change is challenging. Since the University adopted its Science Based Target for carbon reduction, we have seen some of the really big and difficult questions being asked, by students and staff at all levels. Should we be flying? Should we be offsetting? How can we change the way we work to reduce carbon?”.

Whilst this is all good from the Section’s perspective, it does not come without its challenges.

“Having worked for years to try and get staff and students engaged with environmental issues, it is amazing to see the shift in the dynamic over recent months and years. Whereas in the past we might have been asked by staff ‘why do we have to do this?’, the question we most often get asked now is ‘why aren’t we doing this already?’. It’s great, but means that we have high expectations to meet!” says Peter Lumb, the Section’s Environmental Coordinator.

So what is at the top of the Section’s to-do list right now?

Undoubtedly, the Section’s main focus is on developing and delivering a programme of work to achieve the Science Based Target.

Last year’s landmark energy deal has provided a stepping stone in the right direction, but far more needs to be done. To date, the focus of the University’s Energy and Carbon Reduction Project (ECRP) has been on delivering building improvements and projects that reduce carbon and save money. Over the past 9 years, £12.5M has been invested in projects that are expected to deliver lifetime carbon savings of over 84,000 tonnes and lifetime cost avoidance of over £21.7M. Many of these projects have involved the ‘lower hanging fruit’ changes, such as LED lighting upgrades, which have proven and relatively short payback periods. Moving forward, the University will have to explore more challenging, innovative and expensive options for reducing its energy use and carbon emissions. Among potential projects being explored right now is the development of a solar farm on a rural part of the University estate, and an Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plant on the University farm.

It’s also hoped that giving University departments greater involvement will lead to more ideas and action. One way this is planned is through the ‘Electricity Devolution Programme’ (EDP), under which budgets and responsibility for electricity use will be devolved to individual departments. The EDP is being piloted with almost 30 departments and institutions across the University to test and firm up proposals on how the scheme will work in practice. This builds on work to involve departments in energy saving through staff and student engagement initiatives such as Green Impact and the Carbon Challenge.

While achieving the zero-carbon target presents big opportunities for the University, it also raises many questions. One major challenge is gas use. Current projections indicate that the national gas network will not decarbonise quickly enough to assist the University in meeting its target, therefore the University will need to significantly reduce its use of gas in order to remain on track to become zero carbon by 2038. E&E is coordinating a study to explore options – and indicative costs – for achieving this. Fuel use in University-owned vehicles will also need to be considered. While many University vehicles are already all-electric, there is more work to be done to ensure this applies to the whole vehicle fleet.

New buildings are another key consideration. The University’s success as an institution has been a good news story for research and teaching, but has also resulted in a growing estate, which has cancelled out some of the carbon reduction successes in existing buildings. E&E are working on proposals to amend the University’s capital projects process to ensure that carbon is a key consideration in decisions relating to new developments and that the projects are delivered in line with the University’s carbon targets. Achieving this in practice will require close and ongoing collaboration between the University, and the architects and contractors who design and build these new structures.

All of these efforts will be in vain if the University is unable to robustly track progress against its target, or if there is limited confidence in its reported figures. Therefore another challenge E&E are grappling with is making improvements to the University’s data on its various carbon emission sources. The Section have recently commissioned consultants to independently review how this data is compiled and recommend areas for improvement. The Section is also working with others to improve data relating to air travel and the University’s supply chain, both of which are significant emission sources but areas where data quality is currently poor.

So, it is no wonder that the E&E Section’s to-do list is so full right now. And this isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Whilst the University is beginning to take the first steps of its journey towards zero carbon, there are still many unknowns ahead and big questions to be asked.  As Sally Pidgeon, the University’s Carbon and Energy Manager, says: 

“Do we have all the answers yet? Definitely not. Will what we are doing work? We don’t know. But we need to try, we all need to do what we can, and we need to learn and improve as we go.”