What are the Uni doing about the climate emergency? The Courier speaks to the Sustainability Team

Back in April, Newcastle University, along with many other universities, declared a climate emergency. But what practical steps has the university taken to minimise its effect on the environment?

Molly Greeves
21st October 2019
Back in April, Newcastle University, along with many other universities, declared a climate emergency. But what practical steps has the university taken to minimise its effect on the environment? I spoke to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Julie Sanders, Head of Sustainability Matt Dunlop and Sustainability Manager Hannah Owens to find out what’s been going on.

There has been a lot of calls from students for the the Uni to divest in fossil fuels, how is this process going?
HO: Our investment into fossil fuels has decreased over time. In 2015 we started the work to look at investments, which is an area we hadn’t looked at before in terms of sustainability, particularly fossil fuels, after a motion from Student Council. At that point in 2015 fossil fuel investment made up around 10% of our holdings approximately. We’ve recently committed to more frequent reporting and our latest report says that our holdings are at around 1.6%, down from 3.6% in June of this year (percentage is of total endowment funds).


As you know, in April the University announced its goal to reach zero emissions by 2040. Could you give some examples of ways that the University can cause carbon emissions to go up? What practical steps can be taken to reduce emissions?
JS: The 2040 figure that we published in April has come at the end of a really long period of work and study, so the Sustainability committee is looking at this work all the time and reporting year on year. Obviously, you look at the estates so when you look at a University like Newcastle which is growing, certain areas of activity can be quite resource hungry, for example, certain engineering buildings have lots of complex kit which creates [carbon emissions]. [We’re also] looking at biodiversity on the estate so all of that is under our work under that committee.
But specifically, with emissions we’ve got the literal estate but then we have working practices as well. A big piece of work has been going on over the last few months on the travel policy, we’re looking at academic travel and how our global strategy fits with carbon reduction.
MD: [Carbon reduction] is our bread and butter, if you like, in the Sustainability Team. Carbon runs through everything we all do in life, in our home lives, in our work lives... you cannot separate carbon from daily living anywhere in the world. The challenge that we all face as individuals, as institutions, as cities... is to reduce those emissions to almost zero over the shortest time frame possible.
The country’s target is to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 – the government put that into legislation this year – and through the work with the environment and sustainability committee we committed to be visibly leading and we’ve set our target a decade in advance of the U.K’s target at 2040. It's probably one of the most challenging targets that the University has ever committed to.
[One of] the specific things that we’ve done since April... has been investing in energy efficiency. You can see the work going on at Claremont, that buildings getting a whole new thermal envelope, new windows, new walls, new roof, new heating systems, it’s a full refurb and that project is tens of millions of pounds of investment.
But aside from that we’ve also been investing across the estate in things like LED lighting, we’re also assisted in reducing our emissions by the grid from which we buy electricity are decarbonising as the country builds more renewable energy, [due to this] the carbon content of the electricity we buy goes down.
To support that grid aspect we’ve signed a ten year deal direct from a generator so instead of using the traditional energy suppliers we’ve entered into a contract with a windfarm operator for about 20% of our energy through this long-term deal. The remaining 80% that we buy is also renewable so we’ve been 100% renewable energy on our supply side since 2017.
The biggest challenge really is how we reduce emissions in our estate. Particularly, going about decarbonising how we heat and cool our buildings is a massive challenge and we’ve got some projects planned there as well, so we’re looking to redevelop the Stephenson Building and we’re looking at a bio-fuel solution for that so if that project can be made to work, and I’ve had positive meetings with the Vice-Chancellor and the Director of Finance, that would be £4.5 millions of investment in bio-fuel solution to solve that problem.


Aside from decreasing carbon emissions, what other goals does the University have to become more sustainable, for example, in terms of plastic usage?
MD: That’s a good question, and one of the things that we haven’t mentioned is that we have recently revised our environmental policy. That policy looks at all the ways in which we have an impact on the environment and then aims to control that impact, so the policy looks at issues like pollution, water consumption, biodiversity... there are a series of commitments within the policy and a management system is then put in place to control our activities that cause those impacts.
HO: Since you asked about plastics, we’ve got a commitment around circular economy and resource management. More traditionally that was referred to in terms of waste and recycling but now we’re looking at the origin of those materials and looking at the avoidance of the production of waste all together, so as part of the development of that new policy we’re going to be doing a series of workshops with different units and services across the University.
MD: To give you a practical example, in the meeting immediately before this one we were talking about how we’re currently out to tender for our current waste contractor and we were weighing up the different options that each of the different participants in that tender can offer and what it means for where our waste would go and how environmentally beneficial participant ‘A’ would be compared to participant ‘B’.
The activities of the University are always going to have environmental impact, we all do, it’s about what we can do to minimise that.
JS: For me, and for Hannah and Matt, this is a global social justice issue, so it’s much more broadly also in line with the University’s commitment to social justice which is why we’re not going for options like carbon offsetting [which is] kind of the easy option.
This is a really exciting year and I’m really hoping the students are going to get on board.


We’ve covered this a little already by my last question was: what can students do to support the University’s climate change goals?
MD: One of the biggest things that students can do is get involved at the University and be that voice for change because it is going to need to be a joint effort. We need champions, if you like, at all levels in the organisation and we have that at the moment; there’s a growing student voice for change.
JS: I think there’s all sorts of learning we can do. We can use our student projects, [for example] some of the vacation scholarships, and we can build them around the sustainability goals because from that we’ll all learn, we’ll learn what the issues are and what we need to do. We’ve got some great models in the Sustainability Team of student internships, everybody’s got something to bring to the table here. Having conversations back in schools, on the staff/student committees, on the student voice committees, that will be a really powerful thing.

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