Last year, the University of Leeds set itself ambitious targets in order to combat the rise of greenhouse gases and reduce its carbon footprint. The commitments made no specific reference to how the University was ensuring its utility suppliers e.g. gas, electricity, and water, were committing to sustainable practices.
The Gryphon decided to look into things further.
After withdrawing £3.6m investments in fossil fuel firms including Shell and BP, the University of Leeds released seven climate change principles in an attempt to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030.
The ‘principles’, set back in September 2019 are said to represent the holistic steps in place to support ‘the global transition to a low carbon future’ through staying ‘consistent with the Paris climate change Agreement’ goals.
This was then reflected in the latest Times Higher Education Impact rankings confirms that currently places The University of Leeds 1st in the U.K. for efforts made into securing affordable and clean energy – it even managed to achieve full marks against all ‘Energy and Community’ metrics.
New investments such as the Leeds Generating Station Complex (GSC) are also being refurbished in hope to provide the ‘necessary infrastructure to support the University’s development’ according to Dennis Hopper, Director of Facilities and Management at the University of Leeds.
The GSC, jointly owned by the University of Leeds and the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS trust, has teamed with Engie, one of the University’s main suppliers of gas and electricity in order to supply the campus with cleaner forms of energy.
The plant is said to currently generate more than 50MW of steam and electrical power annually and there are new development plans to create a new 35KV high volt connection.
The new contract providing renewable and cleaner energy sources is said to increase ‘low carbon and efficient supply of energy on campus’ states Paul Rawson, Engie U.K’s CEO.
The GSC is also said to guarantee excess savings of £3m for The University of Leeds annually.
Questions arise however as despite £520m in similar investments, recent HESA figures reveal that the University of Leeds has increased their natural gas consumption (a non-renewable form of energy) by 223% between 2015-2019.
Whilst this figure would suggest the University is not on track to meet 2030 net zero targets, an increase in natural gas consumption which is one of the most clean forms of fossil fuels has allowed the University to transition away from coal and oil consumption which produces between 50-60% more carbon emissions than natural gas.
This is therefore a possible explanation as to why the University of Leeds now has a total annual expenditure on coal and oil of £0.
James Dixon-Gough, Sustainability Manager of the University of Leeds, also explains that:
“Prior to Engie, the University purchased steam and electricity directly from the GSC and reported these outputs based on standard conversion factors. But with the new contract, the University reports on the gas inputs to the GSC. This has led a big reduction in reported grid electricity and a corresponding increase in gas consumption’.James Dixon-Gough, Sustainability Manager of the University of Leeds
So whilst in recent years the overall expenditure on energy consumption has increased by £25,000,000, this is balanced in terms of carbon by energy efficiency work, but more substantially by the decarbonisation of grid electricity.
As well as energy consumption, The University of Leeds have also increasingly made efforts to ensure water waste, consumption and water energy usage is kept to a minimum.
Engie, a company whose goals are align with that of the seven climate change principles, have partnered with Yorkshire Water (the University of Leeds’ key water supplier) in order to ‘make zero carbon happen’ through identifying more than 200 energy saving opportunities for Yorkshire water at over 17 major sites over the last 5 years.
As well as this, through supporting Yorkshire Water, the university are investing in a company which currently funds in air and space technology. This support helps save approximately 86,400 litres of water from being wasted through spotting over 35 underground leaks since recent developments.
Despite an increase in almost 6,000 students between the academic years of 2015-2016 and 2019-2020, water consumption at the University of Leeds has only increased by 0.05%.
Whilst this may not first appear to be a success in terms of achieving net-zero carbon emissions as such, fresh water is considered a finite resource and a reduction in water consumption will also indirectly reduce any carbon emissions produced by the production and supply of water.
With regards to the new quantity of students in recent years, contemporary forms of teaching is also a large focal point of the climate change principles as the University aims to ‘direct teaching and research away from fossil fuels and shift focus to reducing carbon emissions’.
As a result of the seven climate change principles, several projects are now in place in order to include student based research into sustainability at the University of Leeds.
Lisa Collins, Head of the University of Leeds’ School of Biology, explains how the new £11 million investment into the University’s National Pig Centre will provide an ‘opportunity for students to contribute to research projects taking place at the farm’ as well as ‘lower the environmental footprint of the British Pig industry’.
According to a study conducted by the Institute for Agriculture and GRAIN, this is particularly important as ‘meat and dairy companies alike are on track to be the world’s biggest contributors to climate change’.
The authors of the report also warn that the ‘livestock sector could be responsible for 80 percent of the allowable greenhouse gas budget by 2050’.
Sir Alan Langlands, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds said:
‘The National Pig Centre will provide a key national resource for industry to work in partnership with the University to develop innovative and practical solutions that make a positive contribution to the economy, environment and society’.
The University of Leeds has also been granted a further £11 million from the Government in aid of creating a new high speed railway system to ‘improve transport for people across the North’.
The new high speed railway system, as Chris Gee, Head of Operations at Network Rail explains will ‘upgrade tracks and signalling to accelerate journeys for passengers.’
Sir Peter Hendy, Chair of Network Rail, states ‘not only will the new testing facility reduce the number of issues we see on the operational railway, but it will help bring economic growth and jobs to the area for many years to come’.
This development is in light of another principle to ‘encourage relevant authorities to develop a sustainable transport system for Leeds City region as well as reducing impacts of business travel from university employees’.
James Dixon-Gough, Sustainability Manager of Leeds also notes how before the coronavirus epidemic, ‘staff had already started to look at alternatives to travel and we were looking at the systemic issues that encourage business travel over virtual communication.’
‘I think post covid-19 we will all be travelling less and it will be important to develop equitable guidelines that account for systemic issues, for example funding requirements, and continue to foster international collaboration & learning.’James Dixon-Gough, Sustainability Manager of Leeds
‘I think for students who have to commute the key is to create a welcoming and supportive environment so that trips home throughout the year are reduced.’James Dixon-Gough, Sustainability Manager of Leeds
Whilst it appears that the University of Leeds are on target to meet 2030 net-zero goals, James Dixon-Gough further wants it to be made clear that ‘year to year energy efficiency can be lost in a large organisation.
‘A successful project in one building can be balanced by a new building or energy intensive research equipment in another’ he said.
He went on to explain further that ‘we have seen some impressive reduction in carbon emissions in recent years, this has a lot to do with the decarbonisation of grid electricity.
Essentially what this means is that while energy consumption can remain static, emissions as a result of this energy usage will have decreased therefore making a net-zero emissions target by 2030 much more achievable.