Carbon footprint of university operations and the Paris agreement

Text: Christian Solli, Environmental advisor of the NTNU


Avoiding the most extreme temperature increases due to climate change is the biggest environmental challenge the world is facing. In order to live up to our commitment (Paris agreement) of keeping the temperature increase “well below” 2 degrees, we need immediate and deep reductions in CO2 emissions that quickly become net zero. Continued emissions of CO2 will keep temperatures rising.

 The slower we manage to reduce emissions, the more we will spend of the remaining “carbon budget” for our target of 2 degrees maximum warming. If the budget is exceeded we will have to rely on (speculative) future negative emission technologies to achieve the temperature target.

 Against this backdrop, and in order to understand the challenge at an organizational level, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) has mapped its total carbon footprint several times since 2011, latest in 2017.

Carbon footprint analysis and use in management

The total carbon footprint of NTNU for 2017 amounts to almost 100 000 tons of CO2 (see infographic below). Energy and transportation are the two largest main categories, while a large group with a myriad of other types of inputs makes up the remaining 45%. Supporting activities, such as facilities management, are responsible for the majority of energy, construction and operations emissions, while the faculties have large contributions to travel and equipment for operations (laboratory consumables, furniture, IT etc. that are accounted toward the faculties) and scientific equipment. A dashboard with a more detailed breakdown of emissions contributions has also been published on the web (in Norwegian).

 The footprint includes the estimated life cycle emissions associated with the consumption of all goods and services used by the university in 2017. The estimation is based on combining the university’s economic accounts with an environmentally extended input-output model. The result is a carbon footprint account using the same structural breakdown as the economic accounts. In addition emissions estimated for commuting is added based on the results from a bi-annual travel survey.

 One advantage with using such a method, is that it quickly gives an indication of where to focus efforts to reduce emissions. It also distributes emissions the same way in the organization as the economic accounts are structured, highlighting who is “responsible” for the respective part of the footprint. If additional information about the purchases is available (for instance supplier, building, project number, geography etc.), the carbon footprint can also be allocated along the same dimensions.  

A disadvantage with the approach is that while quick, complete and fairly accurate at an aggregated level, uncertainty increases when drilling down in the organizational hierarchy. It is also not possible to accurately track progress over time, since the granularity of the model is based on broad (average) product groups. Hence it is not able to capture the effect of switching from one product within a product group to another.

 For management and tracking progress other, more detailed, indicators are needed. These must by developed on a product-by-product basis, and should be directed toward the products with the highest contribution to the footprint. For instance, energy indicators could be kwh energy consumed from the grid, per full time equivalent. Similarly for travel, one indicator could be travelled person-km by air, per full time equivalent.

 In the case of NTNU an early carbon footprint analysis formed the basis of the current (soon obsolete) environmental action plan (in Norwegian). Targeted areas were based on the contribution to the total footprint. This included a quantified target of 20% reduction in energy use, an unquantified target of reducing air travel , and unquantified targets of reducing the footprint from purchased goods by using environmental criteria in procurement. However, crafted in 2011, the action plan targets were nowhere near what is needed to be Paris compliant as per today.


What can we do to become more Paris compliant?

First, we have to acknowledge that all emissions count. Any ton of CO2 taken from the “2-degree budget”, is one less ton to be emitted later, or eventually, one ton more to be captured from the atmosphere in the future. A ton CO2 from university operations is as important as any other ton.

 Also, deploying policies that achieve the necessary deep and rapid reductions in CO2 emissions, requires strong democratic support. People look to academia for truth and insight. If there is a perception in the public that there is much talk about climate change and little action, it may be harder to get public support for ambitious policies. Universities should therefore complement the continuous information and communication about climate change by, through our own actions, showing that we take the Paris agreement and global warming seriously.

 As shown in the introduction, emissions must rapidly approach zero to reach the 2-degree target. Focusing on NTNU, the direct emissions from burning fuels in the operation, are a very low part of the university footprint (a few percent, including commuting). Reductions in the carbon footprint must therefore to a large extent come from the combined effect of three mechanisms:

  • A reduction in the volume of emissions intensive goods and services used  (for instance energy, furniture, IT-equipment, travel etc.).
  • Changing the structure of the consumption. For instance substitution of air travel by train, bus or high quality video meetings.
  •  Improvements in the background economy, affecting the emissions intensity of each product.

 On the latter, universities have some potential to contribute to change (aside more indirect effects of research) through procurement strategies that favour technologies and companies with a lower carbon footprint. Other than that there are few ways of influencing this factor.

 The two other factors are more easily addressed through immediate or medium term actions that we control ourselves. We can reduce our demand for energy by adapting behaviour, control systems, upgrading technical equipment, installing PV and so on. Transport emissions can be reduced by limiting parking, facilitating walking, cycling and public transport, or by reducing air travel. The demand for various goods, like PCs, furniture and other equipment, may be reduced through smart systems for re-use or shared use, or accepting a lower functional level and a little older equipment, for non-essential uses. Separate strategies are needed, and must be developed, for different product groups. All of this is, at least partially, a question of will, knowledge and resources.

 NTNU (and I would assume most other Nordic universities) still has a very long way to go to become Paris compliant in terms of our own carbon footprint. NTNU has an ongoing process of developing the next generation environmental action plan for the university, planned to be valid for the period up to 2030. We are working to develop this with the intention to be coherent with Norway’s responsibilities from signing the Paris agreement. In the coming years we want to show that we take climate change, -mitigation and the obligations in the Paris agreement seriously. By setting an example, NTNU and other universities can lead the way for policy development and more ambitious targets, inspiring larger and quicker emission reductions than under current policies.

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