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Will the University Achieve Net Zero by 2035?

The University of St Andrews has a clear climate goal: net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2035. This plucky target makes St Andrews one of the leading organisations in the fight against climate change. Scotland aims to reach net zero by 2045, and the UK as a whole, in 2050. Our university’s aims, while admirable, should come as no surprise. As one of the leading research institutions in the country, we should be paving the way towards a greener future. As such, how we achieve this net zero target is important.

Firstly, some worrisome figures. In the most recent annual sustainability report, there is plenty of excellent news about some of the community and student initiatives. However, when looking at the Carbon Net Zero tables, it is obvious that progress has been very slow over the last four years. The academic year 2021/22 saw a 40% increase in carbon emissions compared to the previous year. Some have labeled this the COVID-19 effect.This was true. Globally, the pandemic, whilst debilitating in so many ways, did provide the planet with some respite from carbon emissions. Thus, it would be very unrealistic to expect the university to sustain the low emissions levels they reported during the 2020/21 academic year. The truly worrisome figures appear when extending the comparison further back, compared to 2019/20, the most recent report only shows a 2.8% emissions reduction. Did the university miss out on an opportunity to learn from the pandemic and fail to incorporate new ways in which we could reduce our CO2 emissions in the future?

To answer that question it is worth delving into the major contributors to our emissions, and what action the university is taking to address the problem. Energy is an obvious area of interest, and here it seems there continues to be aneffective plan to help reduce emissions stemming from heating and electricity production. Buildings on the new Eden campus benefit from solar power, and over 42 university buildings now utilise energy from the St Andrews Estates Trades team biomass plant. This is progress, and further to this, the University has received planning permission for Kenley wind farm which they claim would reduce the university’s carbon footprint by 50%. Whilst effective in theory, the progress of this initiative has been slow. Obstructions have been caused by the Ministry of Defence, who are adamant the turbines could affect their radar systems. There has been years of back and forth with the Leuchars RAF base over concerns with the project but, hopefully, some compromise or technological advancement will be reached to solve the issues. Following this, the development of this wind farm can continue.

It seems the University has the right intentions and, although the figures may suggest some slow initial progress, there are many avenues the university is looking to explore in order to reduce their carbon footprint. Improvements to how we source our energy are not only positive from a climate standpoint, but also from an economic perspective.

Finally, some food for thought: one of the more contentious uses of economic might in the fight against climate change does not come in the form of investment in green technologies, but in purchasing carbon offsetting credits. The University of St Andrews, in order to achieve their targets, are predicting that they will still need to offset 40000 Tonnes worth of carbon emissions in 2035, this makes for over 50% of last year's emissions. Offsetting this amount purely using carbon credits alone could cost in the region of £4m a year. These are funds which could be used to invest in other initiatives, rather than be used to pay somebody else to pick up our litter. This does pose the question of whether we may be stifling our own research in order to simply tick a box on a piece of paper but that is maybe a discussion for another issue!

Illustration: Lauren McAndrew

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