Exeter University Carbon Neutral Ambitions – are they possible?

4 minute read

Universities represent the zenith of mainstream academia. They are symbolic of knowledge, wisdom and education. And it’s exactly those attributes – knowledge, wisdom and education – that are desperately needed in the fight against climate change. And yet environmental welfare is an area where universities have been oddly reticent over the last five years.

Thankfully that is changing. Increasing numbers of universities are mobilising and implementing action plans to tackle their environmental impact. Among them is the University of Exeter, which has released ambitious plans to become carbon neutral.

But what timeframes are they working towards? Are the university’s plans feasible? And what does this say about the wider challenge of reducing emissions on an international level?

The University of Exeter: carbon neutral by 2050

At the tail end of 2019, the University of Exeter declared an environment and climate emergency. Since then they have assembled a panel comprising environmental experts joined by university staff and students to lay out an action plan for becoming environmentally sustainable.

In doing so, the university has committed to a clear target: becoming carbon neutral by 2040 in terms of the activities that it directly controls (such as the use of university vehicles and the electricity used on campuses). By 2050 the university aims to be carbon neutral in terms of indirect emissions too, such as those associated with third party suppliers.

Divesting from fossil fuel companies

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As part of their environmental ambitions, the University of Exeter has already committed to halting direct investments in fossil fuel companies. In doing so they join a movement that has seen around half of the UK’s 154 public universities begin actively divesting hundreds of millions of pounds from the fossil fuel industry.

Divestment from fossil fuel companies has become a significant trend across the financial industry. Not least since it was revealed last year that just 20 fossil fuel giants are linked to a third of all greenhouse emissions. It’s a shocking statistic. And many companies are seeking to use their investment portfolios as a means of taking action.

The University of Exeter is an example to other institutions

There’s a big difference between talk and action. What’s great about the example of the University of Exeter is that they have drilled down into their numbers and set realistic and specific targets for change – such as increasing recycling to 70% and halving plastic and paper use by 2025. To keep themselves accountable, they have established the environmental panel mentioned above.

The university’s 2050 timeframe may seem distant, but it’s realistic. The university knows that the desire to become carbon neutral isn’t fully within their control. And to understand why, it’s necessary to look at how different emissions are categorised.

What’s the difference between Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions?

There are three different emissions categories: Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3. Scope 1 emissions refer to those that are produced as a direct result of an organisation’s activities. Examples include the fuel used on-site or by a company’s fleet of vehicles. Scope 2 emissions refer to indirect emissions produced by the production of energy that is eventually used by an organisation.

Scope 3 is where things get complicated. This category relates to emissions that are not under direct control of the organisation in question. Typically they relate to emissions from business travel, procurement, waste management and water production. It’s only when you begin considering the breadth of Scope 3 emissions that you realise how enmeshed supply chains are.

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The interdependence between companies is huge. For example the fuel used by the vehicles of a cleaning company contracted to keep your business premises spick and span will fall under your Scope 3 emissions. The emissions generated by the catering company fulfilling the contract you have given them to feed your staff will fall under your Scope 3 emissions. You can’t fully change your ways until your suppliers change theirs.

With that in mind it’s easy to see how procurement alone accounts for an estimated 61% of the University of Exeter’s emissions. So while it’s likely they will be able to make fast inroads on their targets in the short-term, wider change is dependent on other companies that they cannot directly influence. Hence the long-term timeline for becoming completely carbon neutral.

Carbon reduction must be a combined effort

The interconnection of the university’s supply chain is a microcosm of the interconnection of the region’s supply chain, the nation’s supply chain and the global supply chain. There are reduction milestones that require systemic change in society to take place. And systemic change takes time.

That’s why carbon reduction must be a combined effort. And the ripple effects will be significant. As one organisation takes steps to reduce their carbon footprint, they will also positively influence the carbon footprints of the companies that they do business with. It’s a chain reaction.

The situation is clouded by companies who are using PR and marketing to greenwash their clients and customers. But as more companies become genuinely carbon neutral, we are likely to see a snowball effect. Organisations that can verify their carbon reduction credentials will receive more business. Before long, carbon reduction will become not just a social and ethical imperative, but a commercial imperative too.

About P1 Investment Management

As an Exeter-based company we are extremely proud that our city’s university has committed to such positive steps to combat climate change. We have also worked with them directly to help make their investment portfolios more ethical.

P1 analyses businesses to make sure their green credentials are what they claim to be, while helping investors to make more planet-positive investment choices. If you represent a charity or trust and want to improve your investment credentials, come and find out more about ethical investment here.