A university on its way to becoming a net-zero carbon campus

The University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa has emerged as one of the pioneering higher education institutions in the region to work towards a more environmentally sustainable campus by establishing environmentally sound policies and practices.

During the fifth National Global Change Conference (GCC5) hosted by the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein between 30 January and 2 February 2023, Manfred Braune, the director of environmental sustainability in the office of the vice-chancellor, unpacked UCT’s carbon footprint journey as well as observed challenges and solutions in a session with the theme, ‘A short journey through the University of Cape Town’s carbon footprint history and the response’.

Towards an environmentally sustainable future

In his presentation, Braune highlighted that the academic institution, which has more than 200 buildings on five campuses across the city, with a student population of about 29,000 and roughly 4,000 staff members, began its environmental sustainability journey with the signing of the Talloires Declaration in 1994. The Talloires Declaration is “a 10-point action plan for incorporating sustainability and environmental literacy in teaching, research, operations and outreach at colleges and universities”.

The declaration urged university leaders to initiate and support the mobilisation of internal and external resources so that universities take action to increase awareness of environmentally sustainable development, create an institutional culture of sustainability and foster environmental literacy for all.

Former vice-chancellor and principal at the University of Cape Town, Dr Stuart Saunders, was among the creators and signatories of the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future, the Secretariat for signatories of the Talloires Declaration. He died in 2021.

Braune noted that, while such commitments were made, efforts by UCT over the years were largely focused on the teaching and research programmes where the university has become a leader on various environmental sustainability themes, but not so much on an operation in which such work and resources still needed to be committed to in that space.

A green campus policy framework

A student-led green campus initiative (GCI) was established in 2007, which also prompted the start of UCT’s journey in measuring its own carbon footprint, which would help the university to set greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets as well as prepare and implement various GHG reduction projects.

UCT’s GCI was spearheaded by students in the department of botany and was based on the example of Harvard University’s ‘Green Campus Initiative’.

In 2008, the academic institution intensified its commitment to environmental sustainability by establishing a green campus policy framework whose key objectives also included developing pathways to integrate sustainability thinking and practice across all aspects of university life.

The framework also helped to formulate and implement a green campus plan for UCT, which would ensure the reduction of the university’s carbon footprint through targeted objectives for energy savings, reducing carbon emissions, recycling and water conservation.

Buildings as ‘biggest emitters’

In 2012, UCT’s council approved the green building policy which required that all new buildings would need to be a minimum of Four Star, Green Star certified through an independent verification process undertaken by the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA). Part of this green building certification is the requirement for the building to consume less energy (and various other resources).

The independent certification by the GBCSA creates a trusted form of assurance, which allows for a project’s green building and energy consumption credentials to be independently verified.

According to Braune, from UCT’s carbon footprint undertaken over the past 15 years, the biggest component is building energy consumption, with a make-up of, on average, 74% of emissions. Embodied energy of new construction projects was included for the first time in the 2022 carbon footprint, and is also a substantial component of the carbon footprint, at 13%.

Buildings were identified as the greatest polluters due to high electricity usage and within the global context, buildings are said to generate one in three tons of carbon dioxide.

UCT’s average greenhouse emissions over the years have totalled 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalencies per annum with annual energy costs reaching more than ZAR100 million (US$5.53 million).

“The ultimate target for UCT is to become a net-zero carbon campus by or before 2050. Building energy consumption will play a critical role in this, which is why new buildings will be targeting substantial energy consumption reductions, such as the recently completed d-school building, which is about 75% more energy efficient than the national standard,” he said.

“Another project example is the Avenue Road Residence, a 500-bed student residency at the university, designed to use 54% less energy to the South African minimum standard.”

Using the global reporting protocol

During an interview with University World News, Braune also mentioned that, in 2012, UCT adopted and began to implement the International Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which is considered a global standard for public- and private-sector entities to measure and report on GHG emissions with standards that apply to operations, value chains and climate change mitigation actions.

The adoption of the protocol enabled UCT to report efficiently on scopes and categories for greenhouse gas emissions.

Within the protocol, Scopes 1 and 2 are mandatory to report, while Scope 3 emission sources are optional and considered the hardest to monitor.

The university also created an operational boundary and emissions were consolidated using the operational control approach, which exists when an institution has full authority to implement policies under the GHG-emitting activities.

“This means that 100% of emissions generated by activities under the university’s operational control are reported as direct emissions, with the rest falling under indirect emissions,” Braune said.

UCT’s organisational boundary encompasses six campuses or groups of facilities, which include the main campus, the medical campus, off-campus residences and other administrative buildings, the UC Graduate School of Business, Hiddingh Campus, and ICTs on the main campus. Properties leased out for non-UCT use are excluded from the carbon footprint.

“Data to calculate GHG emissions is collected and processed from about 40 different files from various UCT sources, both internal and external. The received data is then checked, queries are addressed, and this is used to compile the carbon footprint.”

Net-zero emissions by 2050

UCTs ambition to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 involves decreasing emissions by 2% to 5% per annum, with significant reductions emanating from operations and maintenance, infrastructure investment, carbon offsets or renewable energy purchases, and behaviour change from students and staff.

In addition, the institution will capitalise on key areas such as building energy efficiency, on-site renewable energy, and renewable energy wheeling.

Notably, due to increased hours of load-shedding per year, emissions from diesel used in generators have steadily increased, but are still only a very small proportion of the overall footprint.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided both opportunities and challenges for the university’s carbon footprint. In 2021, the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on UCT’s carbon footprint was evident and showed a significant reduction in the university’s direct emissions and energy usage.

The analysis showed that, due to COVID-19 restrictions, campus occupancy dropped notably in 2020. This had a considerable impact on emissions.

In addition, the report outlines those pandemic restrictions also led to a drop in electricity consumption of at least 60% in 2020 and slightly less in 2021 due to a rise in campus activities.

Fugitive gases have made a notable difference to the total direct emissions recorded by the university. These gases, which have a greater environmental impact, escape from refrigeration and air-conditioning systems if there is a leak.

“Fugitive gases have very high global warming potentials. For example, 1kg of R404A gas is equivalent to 3,922kg of carbon dioxide, in terms of its global warming potential,” Braune said.

“Although scope 2 provides UCT with a carbon management challenge, it also provides the greatest opportunity for large emission reduction initiatives. This is why UCT’s greatest efforts will go towards building energy efficiency and on-site renewable energy where feasible.”