How far has the University of Northampton come in becoming more sustainable?

We look at what progress the university is making in its environmental goals

By Katie Wheatley

Earlier this year, the world’s most ambitious climate change target of cutting emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 compared to 1990 levels, was set by the UK. For the first time, our sixth Carbon Budget incorporated our share of international aviation and shipping emissions – which would bring the UK more than three-quarters of the way to being net zero by 2050.

The Carbon Budget will ensure Britain stays on track with its new targets, while also remaining consistent with the Paris Agreement temperature goal to limit global warming to significantly below two degrees Celsius and stay on track to achieve one and a half degrees Celsius.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We want to continue to raise the bar on tackling climate change, and that’s why we’re setting the most ambitious target to cut emissions in the world.

“We want to see world leaders follow our lead and match our ambition in the run up to the crucial climate change summit COP26, as we will only build back greener and protect our planet if we come together and take action.”

The hard work starts here, and like all large institutions, universities have a big role to play with the potential to incite massive change. Not only can they reduce their impact on the environment, but the students and staff can encourage the communities around them to do the same.

The University of Northampton may be one of the youngest universities in the country, having only been founded in 2005, but they enrolled 12,985 students in just 10 years – a figure which  will only have grown since then. They welcome international students with open arms and encourage them to apply by pushing their International Scholarship Scheme, where students may receive up to a 30 per cent reduction in their tuition fees for every year they study.

In September 2018, the university moved to their brand new £330 million Waterside Campus, situated on the outskirts of Northampton’s town centre. As well as this, the university still occupies their old buildings on St Georges Avenue, where some teaching and administration still takes place, three halls of residence on Park Campus, and several satellite buildings.

So what are the university’s sustainability goals, how far have they come in achieving them, and what are their plans moving forward?

“The University of Northampton is committed to continually improving the environmental performance across all functions and operations, and according to all legal, regulatory and service requirements.

“The university recognises that our activities impact upon the local and global environment and is committed to lessening the impact,” it says in their Investors in the Environment Manual.

A second revision of their Carbon Management Plan, originally produced in 2017, made a commitment to reducing their greenhouse gas (CO2e) emissions by 30 per cent by 2020, compared to their 2005/2006 baseline. This was developed in line with the government targets set for higher education as a response to the 2008 Climate Act.

The institution recognises the Covid-19 pandemic has had a positive impact on their energy usage, as there was less demand – but, in turn, this has made it more difficult to produce data as their estate has remained unchanged for 12 months. They estimate the CO2e saving to be 4-8 per cent.

Decarbonising the grid – ‘greening of the grid’ – has been one of the pivotal changes allowing the University of Northampton to reduce their carbon emissions. By using fewer fossil fuels and increasing the use of renewables and nuclear power to generate electricity, every kWh supplied to the grid by the institution in 2019/2020 produced 42 per cent less carbon than it would have in 2005 – making up 26 per cent of the target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent.

They believe they have met their target with an overall reduction of 30.33 per cent. However, there may be a margin of error in the figures and if the Covid-19 pandemic had not caused a change in demand, they assume they would have missed the 30 per cent target by 4-6 per cent.

The university’s long-term targets for their carbon footprint are to be net zero in their scope one and two emissions by 2030, which are the direct emissions from the institution and the indirect emissions from the electricity purchased and used – as well as being net zero in their scope three emissions by 2050, which are all their indirect emissions not covered in scope two.

They identified three key milestones they aimed to achieve by October 2020. This included switching to 100 per cent UK-based renewable energy and 100 per cent green or brown gas, but this is still in progress. This also included reviewing their Carbon Management Plan for 2017 to 2020, planning up to 2030, and making the first steps towards the government’s net zero 2050 target, which all came under one goal to be achieved by October 2020 – so far this has only been drafted.

The University’s Environmental Management Strategy has been accredited by Investors in the Environment and for the 2019/20 academic year, they received the ‘Great Green Star Award’ for the third year running. This is given to the top 10 per cent of Green Level members who achieve a minimum of 95 per cent during their audit, whilst also running environmental projects and having an impact on the communities around them.

The University of Northampton is making progress towards their long-term goals and is being recognised for its commitment to minimising climate change, but there is still a long way to go.

This article was written by Katie Wheatley, a University of Sheffield journalism student from Northampton, who has joined us during August on work experience.