Journey to environmental net gain and net zero

The challenge to reach net zero before 2030 is a complex one. Achieving this ambition will require everyone at the University to work together, to become industry leaders in carbon reduction and environmental net gain.

‌The carbon tree has been developed to show how the university intends to achieve net zero status, showing how the journey will throw up many branches of work that will need to be navigated successfully to lead the way. The journey is not linear, and efforts will need to be progressed in many directions simultaneously, the key stages of our programme are outlined below.‌

The roots are well and truly bedded now, and the first defined step of the journey to Net Zero, Building the Foundations, saw completion in September 2021. Since the recommendations were laid out in the Working Group White Paper in 2019, the Sustainability Team (formerly the Environment and Climate Emergency team) have accelerated the University’s carbon reduction targets to set out to achieve Net Zero status across Scope 1, 2 and 3 by 2030.

There’s been good progress on this, and the fruits of this labour are now becoming apparent. The timeline for delivery has been established, a dedicated operational carbon management team is in place and mobilisation of E&CE action is being driven by University wide projects and a Low Carbon Commitment (LCC) fund, through Thematic Forums and Climate Action Plans engaging all Colleges and teams as well as individual action through our Green rewards Programme.  To drive action into all areas of the University cascades quarterly Carbon Scorecards to monitor progress and report achievements.

Work is now progressing steps 2, 3 and 4. As the programme is not linear we expect to work on these agendas holistically with an integrated approach.

Step 2 is centred around operationalising our carbon management strategy; i.e. making it happen, bringing carbon and environmental considerations into everything we do. Preparation for this has already started, with a 10 year plan of projects and action to deliver a reduction of 65% by 2030, leaving a 35% residual carbon footprint.

Everything we do, both individually and as a university as a whole, has an impact on our carbon footprint. Step 2 of our Carbon Tree is dedicated to implementing policies, behaviours and procedures across the university that limit the impact on our carbon footprint, and take advantage of opportunities for environmental net gain. The E&CE is being implemented into the university’s Growth Plans, Global Strategies and the Future of Work through future-proof decision guidance, measurements against the 2018/19 baseline and development of biodiversity and environmental net gain metrics. All of this will enable everyone to take control of their impact on carbon emissions, and feel supported in delivering industry-leading carbon savings. In this step we will also establish dedicated plans for embedding carbon reduction into Education and research activities and building our story board aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Becoming an industry leader in any area requires disruptive action and bold steps. In Step 3, Whole Life Carbon Accounting presents a key opportunity for the university to establish itself as an industry leader through the development of new ways of accessing all projects and action that will allow us to account for carbon emissions alongside financial cost, and treat carbon as a ‘currency’ to build a low-carbon economy. Concepts like carbon budgeting, invest-to-save and return on investment, can all be applied to carbon reduction programmes, and allow the university to take ownership of its carbon emissions and drive them down whilst also realising cost and environmental savings opportunities.

From this, the university can also build a framework with partners and communities; knowledge sharing and supporting our suppliers who share in our ambitions for net zero. We aim to act as an enabler within the context of an Environment and Climate Emergency. We expect real movement between 2022 and 2024.

Step 4 focuses on ensuring the ‘environment’ part of the E&CE remains a priority. Again, this will require the University of Exeter to step into territory others in the industry have not; with real focus on environmental net gain. Improving the local environment has tangible benefits for local residents, staff and students, and through establishing local partnerships, defining clear environmental net gain metrics and delivering world-leading research in this field, the University of Exeter demonstrate that environmental protection is achievable as part of the E&CE.

Though completion of this stage is forecasted for later in the 5-step journey, closer to 2025 in line with our carbon reduction expectations, actions that enable this to be realised must commence far earlier, and plans have already commenced to prepare and plan the next steps. Environmental Net Gain strategies and ‘Natural Carbon Offset’ initiatives will be looked into early, so that the challenges associated with these concepts can be mitigated and partnership opportunities can be explored

The nature of achieving, and sustaining, a Net Zero university is well represented by branches growing out in multiple directions, triggered at different points in time, but all contributing to the overall shape of the agenda. The steps outlined here will progress at different rates, in different directions, often simultaneously, but will all contribute to the overall aim of becoming a Net Zero University. The steps are also not considered in isolation, in that actions from previous steps will likely need to be sustained to enable future steps to be successful.

There will also be exciting opportunities to reconsider our timeline as achievements are realised; there’s a real opportunity to bring our Net Zero goals forward, achieving this status earlier and establishing the University of Exeter as a true leader in its field.