Understanding the University’s carbon footprint and impact on climate change

Posted in: Climate Action Survey 2022

Climate Action Survey 2021 results show our community currently lacks a clear understanding of the University’s carbon footprint and its biggest impacts on the climate.

Diagram showing what staff believed were the biggest contributors to the University's carbon footprint

Our University has a crucial role to play in addressing climate change, but the complexity and multifaceted nature of the issue can make it difficult to understand the organisation’s day-to-day impact. 

Infographic showing the levels of knowledge staff and student have about various climate-related topics

Results from our Climate Action Survey 2021 show that when it comes to understanding the University’s carbon footprint, both staff and students can often lack knowledge when it comes to the areas that have the biggest impact on climate change. In this article, we will look at those areas in more detail and take a look at what the University is actively doing to reduce its impact on the climate.

The University’s biggest carbon footprint impacts 

Pie-chart of the University's Carbon Footprint 2019/20

  • Procurement 

The procuring of goods and services, such as equipment, buildings and food, is the University’s number one biggest climate impact. Surprised? The Climate Action Survey results show that both staff and students believe that ‘Procurement’ comes much lower down the list when it came to environmental impact. However, if we are going to lower our carbon footprint, sustainable procurement must be prioritised. We can all help by remembering that there are always carbon emissions ‘embodied’ in the manufacture of things we buy, which, although hidden, are very significant.

Sustainable procurement isn’t an easy challenge to conquer – the University uses over 4000 suppliers and many emissions occur further down the supply chain, where we don’t have direct contact with suppliers. Nevertheless, the University has the opportunity to look for credible standards to promote sustainability. To do that, the University’s purchasing team is looking at how they drive change and improve sustainability.

  • International travel 

The pandemic has changed the way we think about international travel. People across the world have learnt to embrace technology-based solutions for connecting. But as the world begins to open up, the impact international travel has on carbon emissions remains. 

We need to reconcile the need to fly to events, meetings and fieldwork sites with a desire to limit air travel. The University’s new business travel policy reflects this and aims to:

  • Understand the environmental impacts of travel and use lower-carbon methods of transport where possible
  • Minimise the overall number of journeys to reduce the University’s carbon emissions

We are more educated than ever before on the different ways we can connect with colleagues, collaborators and peers without boarding an aeroplane. The University’s updated policy is just one step to supporting staff to make more sustainable travel choices, without impacting their ability to do their job. 

  • Construction

Almost 50% of global energy consumption is associated with buildings, with the energy used to heat, light and run buildings a major share. Although it is possible to manage the energy performance of the University’s buildings, construction itself is a major impact on our carbon footprint, due to the carbon ‘embodied’ in the materials used to create a building. So how can we reduce this impact? 

There is a lot we can do at different stages from design, construction and operation of buildings to help address the problem. We can use different materials (for example, less concrete and steel and more wooden structures), and we can minimise the use of materials through clever design - see Centre for Innovative Construction Materials.

We must not only design buildings from scratch, but also consider existing buildings. For example, can we avoid building new by better managing our existing space? Can we look at effectively refurbishing existing buildings on campus? Architectural education can play a huge role against climate change and the only way to see real change is to ensure environmental sustainability through that education. 

  • Electricity and gas

Due to the size of the University, it’s clear that the use of electricity and gas will have an environmental impact as well as a financial one (our energy bill is over £5m and rising like everybody else’s). While energy use is monitored closely, and it isn’t always as simple as just ‘switching everything off’, sometimes it really can be! There are always opportunities to reduce energy usage through the simple actions of staff and students. The University also continues to upgrade outdated energy systems and further adopt green technology, to not only reduce its energy costs but also reduce its carbon emissions.

One factor that has changed the emphasis in the energy management world over the last 10 years is the decarbonisation of the UK national electricity supply (the ‘Grid’), mostly through the massive increase in offshore wind farms and the phasing out of coal power stations. This means that electricity, although still very expensive, is continuing to become less and less carbon-intensive - the Government publishes a figure we use every year to convert our electricity use into equivalent carbon emissions and this has halved in the last 5 years and is expected to continue to fall. This means that gas use is now the dominant issue in terms of carbon emissions, and hence the emphasis needs to be much more on reducing this through better insulating our buildings and switching our gas boilers for electric heat pumps - just as we all need to do in our houses.

To provide world-class facilities and the best student experience, we need to use energy – our focus is on not being wasteful. The University has a good track record in reducing energy consumption through efficient building management and education of staff and students, but there is much more to be done and, like all organisations, it needs to be much more rapid and at scale. For further information on this topic, read the University’s latest energy report

  • Travel in the UK

Travelling in the UK is a key impact area for the University, from the way our students and staff commute to our campus to our business-related travel, both of which contribute to our carbon impact and local air pollution. Although the pandemic has altered people’s commuting routines, the University continues to strive to make sustainable travel the norm for students and staff. This means improving connections to and from campus, while reducing the negative impacts of travel including congestion, carbon emissions and air pollution. 

Sustainable travel modes can offer a more cost-efficient way of travelling to and around the University. Season tickets offer good value for regular public transport users and the cost of operating and maintaining a bicycle is minimal after purchase. A reduction in the need to travel, through hybrid working, can result in significant savings on travel expenses, for both the commuter and the University in the case of business trips. Are you thinking about ditching the car in favour of a more sustainable form of transport? There are lots of ways you can get to and from University more sustainably.

Pete Phelps, Climate Action Lead:

Just like with reducing our personal footprints (see last blog), there are some simple things we can do to reduce the University’s impact, and the same simple messages apply - buy less and buy better, travel less and travel better, and turn it off.

There are lots of people and organisations trying to sell us ‘green stuff’ these days but the slightly less sexy and exciting world of just using less is much more effective (but with a smaller marketing budget).

The greenest building is one which we don’t build, the greenest product is the one we don’t buy, and the greenest energy is the kilowatt hour we don’t use. I still remember having my photo in The Chronicle (clearly a career highlight!) standing next to our first solar panels on the East Building, but strangely they weren’t quite as interested when we saved far more through some improvements in some hidden insulation, better metering or ventilation controls. 

The whole area of non-energy carbon emissions (known as scope 3 emissions) is a relatively new field and keeps Mark in our team very busy dealing with some very messy data sources. These scope 3 emissions from procurement and travel, although sometimes outside our control, are definitely within our influence and we will continue to work with various groups across the University and beyond - there are various cross-sector initiatives such as through the EAUC, GW4, and other local collaborations.

There are clearly some really tricky areas involved and we can’t solve them all on our own, but we need to start somewhere and understand the scale and the urgency - as Greta and the IPCC both remind us, the house is on fire!

Becoming more sustainable

Reducing our carbon emissions is a key aspect of our work to lower the University’s impact on the environment. As a large organisation, the University has significant emissions which contribute to the climate crisis. Therefore, it is our responsibility to take action and to lower our carbon footprint as much as possible. 

We have the opportunity to rethink how our University can respond to the needs of both students and staff, and to understand our impact through research, training and teaching. 

But how can we help you achieve this? 

Staff training 

More can be done to educate staff about sustainability and climate change. It is crucial that we make sure our staff are receiving all the training they need to play their part in the fight against the climate crisis. We want to empower them to be part of the change and as such, we are working on plans to develop carbon literacy training for staff. This will explain the science behind climate change in a clear, easy to understand way and will highlight the areas which have the biggest impact on our carbon footprint. By providing this type of training, staff will be able to reflect on their own role at the University and put into practice how they could make a difference. 

Fulfil our Climate Action Framework ambitions

The University’s Climate Action Framework plays a key role in our commitment to carbon neutrality. The Framework aligns with national and global climate targets and by building on recent achievements, it will provide strategies for further improvements in the future. 

Since declaring a climate emergency, the University has been working hard to take meaningful and visible action and we are ambitious with our future plans. Keep up-to-date with the latest news on how we are tackling our emissions on campus. 

Evolving the curriculum 

It is clear from the 2021 Climate Action Survey results that there is an overwhelming appetite for more climate education. That is why we are supportive of adding specialised courses and modules on topics relating to climate and sustainability within degree courses. 

Our commitment to change 

We know that sustainability is important to our community. But more needs to be done to help staff to better understand the University’s carbon footprint and its impact on climate change. We aim to build the knowledge and skills that staff and students need to shape a sustainable future. There is a lot to do and we are exploring opportunities to ensure we meet our ambitious climate change targets. 


Notes about the survey 
  • This survey was conducted in November 2021.
  • This survey was completed by 3985 respondents, representing 39% of University staff and 11% of students.
  • This survey was commissioned by the Climate Action team with methodology devised and results analysed by Dr Paul Haggar, Prof Lorraine Whitmarsh, Kaloyan Mitev and Hannah Lester.
  • The collated survey data can be accessed by members of the University of Bath community here.
  • If you have any questions about the nature of this survey, please contact climateaction@bath.ac.uk

Posted in: Climate Action Survey 2022

To learn more about the University’s progress in limiting its carbon footprint, visit our climate change hub.

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