Sustainability: One giant leap on FE’s journey to net zero

Barry McCarron introduces a new sector-led proposal for sustainability action and says providers urgently need to get better at measuring and reporting their carbon footprint

Barry McCarron introduces a new sector-led proposal for sustainability action and says providers urgently need to get better at measuring and reporting their carbon footprint

5 Feb 2023, 5:00

Last year, the Royal Anniversary Trust launched a programme called the Platinum Jubilee Challenge. It convened 21 higher and further education winners of the latest Queen’s Anniversary Prizes and tasked them with working together on a shared sustainability challenge: accelerating the tertiary education sector’s journey to net zero.

The result has been a journey of committed collaboration between FE and HE, and the benefits are clear to see. The product is an invaluable resource to help the sector accelerate its knowledge and actions. Indeed, it should attract interest in any public body as this is the most detailed work on net zero currently being promoted across the UK public sector. 

The Challenge group began by asking a basic but fundamental question: what exactly is the tertiary education sector’s carbon footprint? While there are numerous examples of innovative carbon reduction work in colleges and universities across the UK, to date there has been no standardised method of measuring or reporting emissions across all nations.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, there was no accessible data on the sector’s carbon footprint. So, with the help of expert sustainability and climate consultants SB+CO and EcoAct, the UK’s HE and FE sectors’ emissions were estimated for the first time, revealing a combined footprint of 18.1 Mt CO2e for 2020/21, of which the FE sector accounts for 12 per cent, or 2.6Mt CO2e. 

The next logical question was how to continue to measure and report going forward. And this is where the journey to net zero starts to accelerate. The report proposes a standardised emissions reporting framework designed exclusively for the sector which will enable all HE and FE institutions to measure, report and manage their carbon emissions on an ongoing basis.

This is a significant piece of work, developed by The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC) in consultation with the Challenge participants and the sector, and funded by the Department for Education. The significance of this is that while departments do not currently make reporting mandatory, the writing is on the wall: the government’s net zero strategy commits to legislating the reporting of emissions if insufficient progress is made voluntarily.

Departments are committed to enabling reporting by 2024 and as stated in its strategy: “From 2025 we will publish targets and institutional progress for the further and higher education sectors”. It really begins with institutions measuring and understanding their carbon emissions in a way that is reflective, transparent and consistent across the sector to enable peer-to-peer review.

Accelerating towards Net Zero also offers 14 recommendations to government which tackle the core blockers to change. The first of these is a call for the establishment of a National Decarbonisation Institute to provide the support and expertise needed to develop and implement decarbonation plans across the sector.

For further education, the opportunity is huge. The UK government wants the education sector to be world leading on sustainability. However, there is still a significant gap in how we teach it. 74 per cent of further education educators have not received training to embed or develop education on sustainability, even though 94 per cent agree that all learners should be taught.

And the sector must be at the heart of the skills agenda – so the government needs to support its policies by acting in education. For example, the UK government has set a target to install 600,000 heat pumps by 2028, yet there are currently only 3,000 trained heat pump engineers in the UK. At least 27,000 will be needed in the next six years, requiring increases of 4,000-6,000 per year. Who will be training and upskilling these engineers?

That is just one example, and there are many. The agenda has implications for retrofitting, hydrogen, electric vehicles, and the circular economy. Further education is at the heart of the solution.

There are 30 case studies profiled in the report which show that the UK further and higher education sectors are already world leaders in the carbon reduction space. From sewage-powered heating systems to the world’s first Passive House Premium education building in my own South West College, there is much to be proud of.

And if the sector continues to work together, as we have on this report, then there is much to be hopeful for as well.

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One comment

  1. Time for a rant!

    Human activity exceeds the capacity of the planet to cope with it. No credible argument can be made against it. Yet individuals and organisations are happy to accept that, while simultaneously fooling themselves that they are acting accordingly.

    By way of an offbeat example:

    On my way into work a few years ago I read an article about a professional golfer who was feeling bad about his carbon footprint. He went on to explain that he’d engaged with a company to offset his carbon footprint and obviously felt this was information worthy of broadcasting via the media to demonstrate positive action on carbon neutrality. As a result, he was free to hop in the private jet, guilt free.

    Imagine if you will, a world where everyone was super rich and everyone could afford to pay for carbon offsetting and ‘do their bit’ while carrying on about their daily business. Would that change the fundamental fact that human activity exceeds the planets capacity to repair? Nope. Yet stories like that are commonplace and people are happy to believe the charade.

    Carbon offsetting is greenwash. It’s an unregulated guilt tax for lazy fools desperate to pay someone and abdicate responsibility.

    Just getting it out there. Once the sector can measure it’s footprint, the next inevitable step will be demonstrating what’s its doing to reduce it… choose your method well.

    (And if you haven’t heard the phrase green-hushing yet, make yourself aware)