A transparency score could reduce campus carbon footprints

As large organisations with correspondingly high numbers of students and staff and large infrastructure, universities have become significant producers of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

For this reason there is a need to standardise and operationalise the approach towards measuring and reducing the carbon footprint (CFP) across all universities worldwide. However, the uniqueness of every university complicates this process.

Currently, the development of a CFP measurement framework specifically for universities to aid them in measuring and reporting their GHG emissions is still at the very nascent stage. How can we create a viable framework for CFP reporting and address one of the key United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 13) on taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts?

Contextual factors

Multiple studies have demonstrated that the ratio of students to staff is not indicative of carbon dioxide emissions; neither is geography or the size and research intensity of a university. Such complexities complicate the standardisation of CFP measurement.

However, the level of carbon emissions per capita at a university strongly correlates with national CFP per capita, something that is supported by the big differences in CFP when it comes to United States and Australian universities as compared to the rest of the world. This correlation can be explained by higher standards of living, a more developed economy, higher consumption rates, vast territories and large urban areas that require long-range and intensive transport connectivity.

Furthermore, in order to gain an understanding of how universities measure their CFP, we first need to establish a consensus on the tools to use and the frameworks to apply to measure the sources of emissions.

Among the universities we analysed in 25 studies, 54% of universities used the GHG Protocol, 20% used the IPCC Guidelines and the rest applied ISO 14064–1 and PAS 2050.

The difference in CFP measurement tools and the variation in the included carbon emissions can be partially explained by the lack of international standards that universities need to adhere to and by the absence of a recognised certification process that could validate university’s efforts in CFP reporting.

Standardising measurements

Usually, for an organisation’s inventory of emission sources to be considered complete, only Scope 1 and 2 emissions are included. For example, among 566 universities that participated in the Times Higher Education survey (where more than half of participants had committed to a net zero target), only half accounted for their universities’ indirect emissions under Scope 3.

Analysis of 33 universities across all continents demonstrated that three quarters of universities included Scope 1 emissions from stationary combustion and vehicle fleets and only around 30% included leakage of refrigerants.

As for the emissions coming under Scope 2, all universities in the mentioned study included purchased energy and only one included generated energy. Emissions linked to Scope 3 regarding water consumption were reported by 40% of universities, paper consumption by 55% and food consumption by 30%.

Approximately 70% included emissions relating to business travel and commuting in the calculation of their CFP and only 10% considered emissions relating to the transport of supplies.

Obviously, comparing and ranking universities by their CFP is almost impossible, due to the unstructured and dissimilar approaches employed for calculating CFP, the use of contextually inappropriate tools (intended for industry and not for universities), lack of transparency in the CFP measurement and the lack of availability of specific data.

To standardise the CFP measurement, we suggest that the most relevant data that universities need to collect on the sources of emissions would be the following:

Scope 1: Stationary combustion (from different types of fuels), vehicle fleet (separated by number of vehicles, fuel type and run distance), and refrigerant leakage (including type of refrigerant, its volume and equipment it is being used for).

Scope 2: The amount of purchased and generated electricity, the type of electricity (green or carbon-based) with the distribution across all university buildings, and the amount of electricity used by university-owned electric vehicles.

Scope 3: Emissions caused by consumption of water, paper (recycled and virgin) and food, treatment of wastewater (the amount of used energy), usage of laboratory chemicals (the amount of chemicals being collected for recycling) and electronic equipment (laptops, desktop computers, printers, toners etc), from commuting (separately for students and staff and including different means of transport) and from business trips (distance and means of transport) and from generation of waste (including hazardous waste, lamps and luminaires, batteries and toners and the mode of management: recycling or landfill).

While access to personal data is understandably limited and hampers transparent and reliable collection of travel and commuting data, universities sometimes choose not to report this second biggest contributor to emissions. Moreover, every university is unique in its regulatory policies, location, academic and research load, which means evaluation needs to be scrupulous in every specific case.

On transparency as a factor of CFP

Transparency in reporting carbon emissions was the most debated issue at COP26 where it was suggested that countries should openly report their progress in meeting their sustainability pledges.

In order to reward the comprehensive reporting and measuring of CFP, we suggest introducing a CFP score defined by the transparency of a university in reporting its footprint. When a university tracks its carbon dioxide output very comprehensively and reports this clearly, it should receive a high score for transparency. This high score in transparency in turn affects its carbon dioxide footprint so that a university is rewarded for being transparent.

The combined score assessment would enable the majority of universities to compete with each other not only in respect of the reduction of their GHG emissions, but also by increasing the transparency and availability of their data.

Moreover, consistent tracking of emissions generated by a university from a variety of sources could instil public trust in reporting and demonstrate a university’s intention when it comes to dynamic changes.

Dr Iuna Tsyrulneva is a postdoctoral fellow at NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity (NISTH), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, working on conceptualising global societal challenges. Dr Sulfikar Amir is an associate professor of science, technology and society, School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, and acting director of NISTH, with a core interest in risk, disaster and resilience. The examples of CFP score calculations, a visualised representation of the CFP framework and successful practices in reducing universities’ CFP can be found in the report NTU Carbon Footprint Framework for Universities.