The Process of Becoming Carbon Neutral: How Universities Can Hit Net Zero Emissions

carbon neutral

Universities from all over the world have pledged to become carbon neutral in the future. Here’s how your institution can follow suit. 

What do SkyM&S, and Google have in common? They are all certified CarbonNeutral®. 

This means that each company has made efforts to achieve a net carbon footprint of zero. 

In other words, their emissions have been reduced as much as feasibly possible, while offsetting any carbon that can’t be or is particularly difficult to avoid.  

The initial goal of carbon neutrality is to first adapt processes to produce as little carbon as possible. 

Any necessary or difficult to avoid emissions can then be counterbalanced with proactive action that reduces carbon in the atmosphere, such as the planting of trees.  

As the looming threat of climate change becomes increasingly more obvious, the goal of carbon neutrality is both a positive and necessary objective that countries, cities, businesses, and organizations should all be pursuing. 

As large producers of carbon, universities are not exempt from this target and they have a responsibility to follow suit and set a good example to other organizations.  

In 2019, QS proudly became a certified CarbonNeutral® Companycompleting the necessary steps to achieve this status.  

The initial stages involved the calculation of the business’ carbon footprint; exploring areas such as water use, waste, outbound deliveries and packaging, site energy, company vehicles, and office electricity.  

From here, QS were able to identify areas of improvement and set future targets, while also supporting the Acre Amazonian Rainforest Conservation project in collaboration with Natural Capital Partners; helping to grow and protect the Amazon Rainforest.  

After the release of the UN’s Emissions Gap Report 2019, its clear that steps such as these are crucial if we are to close the gap between emissions targets and projected rates.  

The report reveals that, despite the efforts of the Paris Agreement, carbon emissions have increased over the last 10 years. 

“By 2030, emissions would need to be 25% and 55% lower than in 2018 to put the world on the least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to below 2˚ C and 1.5°C respectively.” 

Goal 12.6 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is for countries to “encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle.” 

Below are the steps your institution can take to comply with this goal and attain carbon neutral status.  

Consult the experts 

Its difficult to know where to begin when it comes to reducing the carbon emissions of your institution.  

The best place to start is by approaching the experts; those who can calculate your current emissions, develop a plan, and eventually provide you with a certificate to acknowledge your carbon neutral status.  

For example, The CarbonNeutral Protocol gives businesses a rigorous and transparent framework to deliver carbon neutrality for their business, products and/or activities.” 

Reduce your emissions 

Once your carbon footprint has been calculated, the next step is to implement methods of reducing your institution’s carbon emissions.  

For guidance specific to the higher education industry, the Global Universities Partnership on Environment for Sustainability (GUPES) is a great source of information and ideas around becoming a more sustainable institution.  

Its Greening Universities Toolkit was developed “to provide universities with the basic strategies and tactics necessary to transform themselves into green, lowcarbon institutions. 

The toolkit suggests a review of the following areas: 

  • Energy conservation: Staff energy conservation training; energy awareness programs, such as campus posters; improved space utilization; and energy efficiency standards for new construction and refurbishments 
  • Energy efficiency: Building retrofitting; heating; ventilation and air-conditioning; and periodic recommissioning and building tuning to optimize energy efficiency 
  • Renewable and alternative energy: Purchase of certified ‘green power’ and the installation of solar cells, wind, biomass, and other renewable energy systems 

While many institutions, such as Bristol University in the UK and the University of Guadalajara in Mexico, have pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030, there are a few who have already achieved this milestone.  

In 2018, the American University became the first higher education institution to receive a carbon neutral status; two years before their target date. 

In 2011, the university began buying 100% renewable energy credits, and a newly constructed campus building received the LEED Gold Certificate for energy and environmental design.  

They also achieved a “20% decrease in electricity use per square foot through implementation of new technology, space management strategies, and behavior change initiatives.” 

Its understandable that some universities will find it more challenging to reach carbon neutrality than others. 

Second Nature, a company that helps institutions across the US meet their sustainability goals, has discovered that universities with “engineering and science laboratories, or with medical schools” have a much more difficult task ahead. 

Due to the technology required at these universities, data shows them to be “about four times more carbon intensive per full-time enrollment than the baccalaureate colleges.” 

Regardless of these challengesaddressing and exploring your institution’s carbon footprint and the obstacles you may need to overcome is a necessary step towards carbon neutrality. 

Off-setting your emissions 

While reducing your institution’s carbon emissions is important, it must also continue to run effectively and achieve its function as a university.  

Therefore, there will be some carbon emissions that cannot be cut entirely, such as the obvious necessity of having enough electricity for lights, computers, and heating.  

To reduce any negative impact on the planet, institutions must find ways of off-setting these emissions.  

QS did just this by supporting the Acre Amazonian Rainforest Conservation project, which aims to prevent deforestation and protect some of the world’s most biodiverse habitats.”  

In supporting this project, QS can positively contribute to the protection of the planet and counterbalance any emissions it cannot avoid. 

Bristol University plans to achieve their 2030 carbon neutrality goal by planting trees and other flora around its campus.  

It’s important to note that this off-setting step needs to be part of a wider plan to reduce carbon emissions by launching campaigns such as, ‘Be the Change’ and ‘Green Impact, that inspire staff and students to take action on reducing carbon. 

For guidance on how to become a more sustainable university in 2020, download a free copy of our white paper: Sustainability in Higher Education: What More Can Universities Do? 

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