Institution’s carbon reporting feeds into its work on SDGs

Carbon reporting and developing a sustainable campus is a critical component of the University of the Free State’s Vision 130, which encompasses the university’s plans to reposition itself by 2034 when it turns 130, and which calls for an environment of agility, flexibility and responsiveness based on trust and accountability.

But the university’s focus on environmental sustainability is not new. Its carbon footprint journey started in 1993 with the introduction of energy-saving models such as heat pumps and light-emitting diode, or LED, lights.

However, the higher education institution, located in central South Africa, also amplified its work and produced its first carbon footprint report in 2022, with data collected from the institution’s operations in 2021.

In addition, the establishment of a solar park is one of the university’s ground-breaking projects, which will increase its energy efficiency by harnessing solar power through technology.

While progress continues to be registered, the institution has faced challenges with consolidating data from various information sources. In addition, accounting for emissions made by students and staff has also been a formidable task.

During the Fifth National Global Change Conference (GCC5), hosted by the University of the Free State (UFS) in partnership with the South African Department of Science and Innovation and the National Research Foundation early in 2023, Stefaans Erasmus, a lecturer at the UFS department of engineering sciences and a member of the UFS Grid-Related Research Group, outlined the importance of carbon reporting as a critical aspect in combating global warming and achieving environmental sustainability.

The research group is an extension of the engineering department which has, as its major focus, the implementation of projects in line with creating sustainability, reducing carbon footprint and increasing energy efficiency.

The conference, that ran under the theme, ‘Research and Innovation: Accelerating transformation towards global sustainability’, brought together experts in academia and industry to explore key topics which included carbon removal and environmental sustainability.

The conference also paved the way for universities to share experiences and insights on their carbon footprint journeys, which have been a critical point in the transition to net zero emissions.

For UFS, the practice of carbon reporting, which entails the public reporting of greenhouse gas emissions, is part of the institution’s undertaking to work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Our institution’s carbon reporting is part of its commitment towards the sustainable development goals, particularly SDG 6, which advocates for clean water and sanitation, and SDG 7, which promotes affordable and clean energy, as well as SDG 13, in support of climate action,” Erasmus stated.

The importance of carbon reporting

Established in 1904, UFS currently has 41,169 students and 2,599 staff members utilising 219 buildings spread across three campuses. The campuses are the Bloemfontein main campus, South Campus, which is also in the city, and the QwaQwa campus, a drive of between three and four hours into the countryside.

UFS makes use of the Climate Registry general reporting protocol to track, consolidate and report the university’s emissions.

The Climate Registry is a non-profit organisation with a variety of tools and reporting programmes and services for measuring and reducing emissions. It can help organisations to become more efficient, sustainable and accountable.

Erasmus noted that the university’s data acquisition focuses on key elements such as the university financial records, electricity usage, solar generation data, the university’s physical parameters and students’ records.

According to the 2022 carbon report, the university’s emissions are accumulated within Scope 1 with 90.82% emissions, with Scope 2 resulting in 9.18% emissions.

He explains what this means: “Scope 1 emissions are a direct result of the institution’s activities, which include energy usage through diesel generators or fleet vehicles on campus, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) usage, and refrigerants used in air-conditioning systems.

“Scope 2 is all emissions indirectly caused by the institution, but still as a direct result of the institution’s activities – for example, the electricity we buy from the national utility,” stated Erasmus.

Formal policies needed

The expert members of the Grid-Related Research Group at the department of engineering sciences at UFS shared the institution’s progress in carbon reporting as well as its research agenda to reduce carbon footprint with University World News.

The research group brings together academics and experts in operations from the institution’s engineering department to advance research in complex systems’ analysis in power systems.

The latter, typically, is driven by inter-disciplinary research between mathematics, engineering sciences, physics, social sciences and university operations.

The research group spearheads green campus projects such as the setting up of an additional two megawatts of power at its Bloemfontein campus and the QwaQwa micro-grid Photovoltaic (PV) Diesel systems. A solar PV-Diesel hybrid system combines the power output of PV arrays and diesel generators.

Carbon farming, which is a practice whereby carbon is captured from the atmosphere and put back into the soil is to be explored by the research group in future projects.

According to Nicolaas Esterhuysen, the director of the University Estates: Engineering services, while the university is set to establish formal policy on carbon emissions, the basic planning in terms of its strategic vision for the next 12 years of the university is to incorporate global guidelines and standards.

“Our work also aligns with international agreements and United Nations’ SDGs on becoming more energy-efficient, reducing wastage and monitoring, specifically, electricity consumption on campus,” he stated.

Electricity usage

Esterhuysen also highlighted the need to find pathways to reduce and account for electricity usage and consumption within the university, as it was by far the highest contributor to UFS’s carbon footprint.

“Our biggest challenge to carbon emissions is our electricity. So our primary focus when we look at our university’s carbon emission report is electricity consumption as it constitutes about 90% of emissions. Our goal is, therefore, to draw up cost-saving measures, and then we will also expand into water usage and waste management.”

He also mentioned that the lack of important data on usage and costs in the university’s system was an added challenge in effectively reporting emissions.

Reporting on Scope 3 has also been a challenge for the learning institution as it required tracking essential data such as staff and student commuting, waste generated in operations as well as other fuel and energy-related activities.

Scope 3 covers emissions indirectly affecting the organisation’s value chain and includes all sources that are not within an organisation’s Scope 1 and Scope 2 boundaries.

Towards a sustainable campus

Dr Jacques Maritz, the head of the UFS Grid-Related Research Group, shared the engineering department’s efforts to spread awareness on environmental sustainability and carbon footprint to students and staff on campus.

“The university has been making efforts to create awareness to students on reducing carbon footprint and emissions by developing a division called the ‘Student leadership development’.

“This is part of the UFS student affairs, which helps to equip students with the critical knowledge on water and electricity usage as it relates to carbon footprint and emissions,” he said.

“This year specifically, they have a theme called the ‘Green transition towards a sustainable campus’. Under this initiative, they focus on bringing together different departments to conduct research in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary ways in order to reduce emissions and achieve carbon neutrality.

“We also have work in sessions and workshops whereby we get students as well as staff members involved to ensure that they become aware of the effects and impact of their actions. We also educate them on reducing their daily emissions during these events and the important role that each student can play in achieving the overall goal of environmental sustainability,” Maritz noted.

Current and future actions

While the uptake of policies on reducing carbon emissions remains a fundamental aspect in the UFS’s vision to achieving carbon neutrality, the department of engineering sciences has been gearing its efforts towards significantly cutting emissions by identifying loopholes, replacing outdated systems with effective and efficient ones and implementing new technologies to mitigate overuse and wastages on campus.

Most importantly, the department intends to foster an energy efficiency agenda, which will ensure that electricity consumption is controlled and carbon reporting expands to other critical elements such as waste management and water usage.

“We have a big drive to become more energy efficient as it does not help to generate power with solar yet we are not using it in an ineffective manner. We need to become more energy-efficient and we have implemented energy-saving technologies which include occupancy sensors (an indoor motion detecting device used to detect the presence of a person to automatically control light temperature or ventilation systems), motion sensors, digital sensors on light to ensure that we reduce wastages during daytime,” Esterhuysen noted.

“On the mechanical aspects, we have been replacing and refurbishing outdated systems in terms of lighting and heating with the latest technologies. For example, we are currently on the next phase of implementing the central heat pump cluster.”

Some of the buildings with the highest electricity consumption within the campuses included the library, laboratories and medical facilities.

“We have started a phased approach to replacing our air-conditioning plant in the buildings, including laboratories, to ensure that the mechanical systems within our buildings are upgraded and energy-efficient.”