Data from 537 institutions revealed they emitted more than 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) into the environment in 2020/21, which represents around 2.3% of the UK’s overall carbon footprint.
CO2e is a way of standardising carbon emissions from different greenhouse gases.
Eighty percent of the tertiary education sector’s emissions came from three areas: the built environment including student accommodation; staff and student travel; and in the way the sector brought in goods and services.
Emissions could be even higherIn addition, the working group looked at emissions that were the result of financial investments made by universities and colleges, such as investments in the fossil fuel industries.
With billions of pounds in endowments, pension funds and other investments, the working group estimated the sector’s financed carbon emissions alone could generate 39.2 million tonnes of carbon a year, more than double the level of all other emissions.
They said this was a source of emissions that was "largely unaddressed".
Professor Piers Forster, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at Leeds and one of the authors of the analysis, said: "This is the first-time the greenhouse gas balance sheet across the sector has been calculated in a consistent way.
"We now have an evidence-based picture of where we need to urgently target our efforts to ensure we accelerate carbon emission reductions through new ways of working and introducing game changing technologies and ideas. Addressing the carbon in what we buy, looking at how we commute to work and improving student accommodation are obvious targets for action.
"We need to use our investment clout to ensure businesses we invest in are following ambitious carbon reduction strategies.
"At present the sector is only average in terms of emissions per pound generated - we need to set an example to the rest of the economy of how to act now to reduce emissions."
The findings are published in a report titled Accelerating the UK tertiary education sector towards net zero and written by representatives from 21 universities and colleges as part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Challenge.
The challenge participants were brought together by the Royal Anniversary Trust from institutions that won Queens Anniversary Prizes in 2021 for research that had impact and public benefit.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: "The fight against climate change is one we will only win if we all work together. The UK’s world-leading higher education and further education sectors are creating a pipeline of talent to fill the key skills gaps that will be vital to our national response to climate change.
"Institutions from across the UK are working together towards our common goal to be net-zero and I am hugely grateful for their work to date."
The report highlights target areas for emissions reporting and reduction and proposes a new standardised carbon reporting system designed exclusively for the sector which will enable all higher and further education institutions to measure, report and manage carbon emissions.
Kristina Murrin, CEO of The Royal Anniversary Trust , commented: "Our ambition was to bring together the extraordinary winners of the Queen’s Anniversary Prizes to collectively tackle a tough shared challenge. The resulting report sets out a clear action plan for the tertiary education sector to accelerate progress to net zero, with recommendations for institutions and government. We are enormously proud of the proposed carbon reporting framework - if adopted sector-wide, this will allow for consistent, transparent, and data-led decision making."
SolutionsThe report suggests a series of initiatives to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint, including making buildings more energy efficient, identifying alternatives ways to heat spaces and to use more renewable sources of energy.
Sector leaders need to work with suppliers to reduce emissions. Business travel should be reduced, students encouraged to use more public transport. Increasing the number of places in university halls of residence would also reduce emissions.
According to calculations by the working group, the solutions identified in the report could reduce the carbon footprint by about 72%.
The report also makes 14 recommendations to Government, which include a call for a UK-wide Decarbonisation Institute to support the implementation of a low-carbon energy transition and net zero emissions in the built environment. This would provide institutions with data and insights to back the right solutions and promote collaboration across the wider public and private sectors.
The challenge participants also argue that colleges and universities control a large estate of land and buildings which could be used to generate renewable energy but there are barriers in the way the Nation Grid operates that are preventing this from happening.
Ministers have said they will respond to the recommendations by the end of March 2023.
Spread best practiceThree members of Leeds staff were involved in the challenge: with Professor Forster was Dr Shona Smith, Research and Innovation manager at the Priestley Centre, and Lynda Simmons, interim Director of Sustainability.
Dr Smith said: "The tertiary education sector has a key role to play in ensuring the UK achieves net zero. We are training people on issues around sustainability, and developing new approaches, tools and technologies that will enable us to move away from our reliance on carbon.
"Our aim is to share best practice across the sector and with other organisations leading by example and demonstrating how to make a just and resilient transition to net zero."
University’s Climate PlanThe findings of the report represent the views of the challenge participants and not the universities they are from. However, Lynda Simmons, interim Director of Sustainability at Leeds, says there is considerable alignment between the initiatives being suggested by the challenge participants and the University's Climate Plan, in particular the University’s plan to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
She said: "There is nothing in the Accelerating Towards Net Zero report that does not align with the University’s Climate Plan. The University is ahead of the game by some considerable margin with a focus to ensure the University’s efforts are based on reduction initiatives, new technologies and a transition to renewable energy before any consideration is given to carbon offsetting."
The University’s Climate Plan will see £174 million invested over the ten years from 2021 to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.