• Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

The University of Edinburgh’s Blind Spots in Achieving Carbon Neutrality

ByAngus Hennessy

Feb 13, 2024

Despite the University of Edinburgh placing highly in the QS World University academic ranking, its sustainability ranking fell from 4th place to 15th globally when it comes to sustainability. Whilst the university claims its climate strategy is meeting targets, and figures reflect the increase in universities surveyed, The Student asks what more can be done to meet their climate goals.

In their 2016 Climate Strategy, the University aimed to become carbon neutral by 2040 and return to the 2007/8 baseline year emission levels by 2025. They cited an increase in energy efficiency, investment in and adoption of renewables and the implementation of a transportation hierarchy as the main ways of achieving this. Despite this, there are a range of missed opportunities in their climate strategy that could affect their progression towards a net zero university by 2040.

The university claims that it adheres to strict design standards to ensure that all new and refurbished buildings have increased energy efficiency and reduced environmental impact. They also hope to obtain a Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology (BREEAM) rating of “excellent” for new buildings and “very good” for refurbishments. However, it is hard to ignore that despite this, there seems to be a degree of wastefulness in heating buildings like the main library, which is far warmer than it needs to be.

On transportation, the university actively promotes alternatives to air travel for business, as it was the single largest contributor to transport emissions in the 2014-2015 academic year. In their 2021 Sustainable Travel Policy, they outline their travel hierarchy, cutting down on all unnecessary journeys by encouraging video calls over in person meetings. Where journeys are unavoidable, walking and cycling are prioritised on the local level, and public transit on the domestic level. But cutting down on domestic flights will not eliminate most of the carbon emissions from air travel. 

Read More: University of Edinburgh urged to go plant-based as lecturers sign open letter

In response to this issue, the university is investing in carbon sequestration schemes. But to offset most of their transportation emissions this way is a tall order, especially when considering this is the policy for all of the university’s necessary emissions, not just those generated from transport.

Missing from the climate strategy was the acknowledgement of the emissions generated from catering, as agriculture makes up 10% of British GHG emissions. Most of this comes from animal agriculture, a leading cause of deforestation and habitat loss. The university’s existing policy as of the 2021/2022 academic year is to maintain a 50% vegetarian and plant-based menu with seemingly no desire to increase this number. They are instead focusing on providing locally sourced animal products, namely beef and dairy. This fails to consider that most of the emissions of animal products come from production rather than transportation, making animal agriculture inherently less sustainable than most plant-based alternatives, local or not.

While a vote to make all EUSA venue catering plant-based failed in 2023, the fact that the university is not even attempting to move towards this in their own venues, such as Pollock Halls’ catering, shows a blind spot in their climate strategy.

Despite these blind spots, the university is the centre of a huge amount of climate research and innovation, working with many organisations to explore new climate strategies and creating specialists who generate innovative ways of fighting climate change in Scotland and globally. A notable example is the Scotland Beyond Net Zero (SBNZ) initiative, founded jointly by the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. This coalition would bring universities together and provide cutting edge research to policymakers to ensure that Scotland reaches its goals of net zero by 2045. 

According to their emissions reporting, the university is already exceeding many of their 2025 targets outlined in their Climate Strategy. It is clear that there is a substantial effort to reduce their environmental impact, but there are significant blind spots that must be addressed before a carbon neutral future is possible.

Old College Quadrangle, Edinburgh University” by dun_deagh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.