“A Dear, Green Place”: Towards a Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan for the University of Glasgow

This paper sets out a proposed climate change strategy for the University of Glasgow. It follows the Principal’s declaration of a climate emergency in May 2019 – a statement which was reported world-wide and which reinforced similar messages from the UK Parliament and the Scottish Government as well as other universities around the globe.1

The following sections outline the context in which we are operating, review progress to date in reducing carbon emissions and set out a route to ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2035. The paper goes on to propose a series of actions under five headings:

  • Engaging and empowering our community
  • Promoting efficiency
  • Governance and policy
  • Continuous improvement initiatives
  • Building resilience

A central theme of the paper is the need to engage the University community more effectively in this developing agenda. We believe there are huge opportunities in this respect – people at all levels are treating the issue of climate change with a renewed sense of urgency and are willing the University to go further and faster.

A second theme relates to the University’s place in the world – rather than being inward looking, we want to use our influence and expertise to address key challenges and inspire others to action. At the same time, we seek to outline a strategy that is affordable and achievable – which allows the University not only to fulfil its primary objectives, but to make sustainability an essential element in those objectives.

The ideas presented below draw on recent discussions at Senior Management Group, Senate and the Student Experience Committee as well as three consultation seminars with staff as part of the World-Changing Glasgow Design Week. If the University Court is supportive in principle, we will undertake a campus-wide programme of consultation with the aim of building a consensus and ensuring buy-in from both staff and students.

The global context

All members of the University community will be aware of heightening global concerns about climate change. The Paris Climate agreement, drafted in 2015, saw 195 countries agree on the need to keep global temperature rises this century to well below 2oC while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5oC.2

More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) has published a special report which indicates that limiting global warming to 1.5oC would require ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by around 2050 (IPCC, 2018); the Panel recognises that any additional warming above 1.5oC would significantly worsen the risk of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people around the world3.

The legislative context

The United Kingdom has also been active in this space. The Climate Change Act 2008 commits the UK government to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 20504.

A series of Scottish acts, announcements and reports followed, culminating in the Climate Change (Emission Reduction Targets) Scotland Act 2019, which achieved royal assent on 31 October; this establishes a legally-binding net-zero target of 2045 for Scotland. Furthermore, it sets interim targets of 75% and 90% reductions compared with 1990 levels by 2030 and 2040 respectively5.

The reputational context

As a ‘World-Changing’ University, Glasgow must react to the global climate crisis – it is undeniably the right thing to do given the scale of the challenge. Putting climate change at the heart of our agenda is consistent with our status as a values-driven organisation which wants to change lives for the better, both for our own community and for the world at large.

Successfully and vigorously addressing climate change can only enhance our reputation as a world-leading University.

Now, more than ever, the climate emergency is prominent on the political agenda; all bodies in the public and private sectors are being held to a higher level of scrutiny in this regard.

Given the academic expertise they possess and the role they play as education providers, Universities have a special duty to provide leadership in thought and action; moreover, there is strong pressure from both staff and students to take action and to show what can be achieved and to apply our research knowledge to climate change issues.

Students in particular are significantly more engaged with climate change agenda than other sections of the population – in response to a NUS survey in May 2019, 91% of students responded that they were ‘fairly or very concerned about climate change’. This is the highest percentage to date – an increase from 74% in 2016.

Declaration of Climate Emergency

In October 2017, the University of Glasgow signed the Sustainable Development Goals Accord, which committed us to combatting poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, and promoting peace and justice.

In May 2019, in response to a call from the Environmental Association of Universities & Colleges, we made a formal declaration of climate emergency and committed to achieving carbon neutrality by a specified date. To support this work, we commissioned consulting engineers to review our current position and advise on next steps.

The current position

The University has made some progress in recent years. In 2015/2016, our carbon footprint was calculated as 69,591 tCO2e; in 2018/2019 the figure had reduced to 61,487 tCO2e – a decrease of 11.65%.6

This is largely attributed to the increased efficiencies from the introduction of the Combined Heat & Power (CHP) system and the decarbonisation of the national grid.

Key contributors to the 2018 Reported Footprint (Total 61,487 tCO2e) 
Natural gas (Non-residential) 23%
Natural gas (Combined Heat & Power) 8%
Business travel (International flights) 20%
Business travel (Other) 4%
Electricity (Non-residential) 24%
Commuting 14%

However, looking forward, our next publicly stated target (as per our Public Sector Climate Change Duties report 2018) is a reduction in emissions to 55,500 tCO2e by 2020/2021; this would entail a reduction in emissions of 20% from the baseline in 2015/2016. On the present trajectory this target will not be met, principally due to increased emissions from staff business travel (predominantly flight-related).

A projected route to carbon neutrality

The consultants have estimated that if the University maintains its present trajectory, our carbon footprint will rise to 64,940 tCO2e by 2035 and to 75,366 tCO2e by 2045.

Instead of this, we propose a series of actions which, taken together, have the potential to reduce our carbon footprint to 32,122 tCO2e by 2035. The professional advice is that further reductions below this level will be very hard to achieve, but that we could aim to hold steady at that level and to offset the difference.

The graph below displays the potential reductions in carbon emissions until 2045 (starting with the pessimistic assumption that we miss our 2020 target of 55,000 tCO2e).




Projections for aggregated CO2 emissions to 2045 (from ARUP report September 2019)

 Gas and
travel -
travel -
2020 20,153 13,638 10,522 11,616 283 1,659 57,902 
2025 15,228 12,314 9,036 9,975 319 1,806 48,677
2030 8,396 10,331 7,759 8,566 358 1,970 37,386
2035 8,396 5,921 6,663 8,566 403 2,173 32,122
2040 8,396 5,921 6,663 8,566 452 2,601 32,400
2045 8,396 5,222 6,663 8,566 507 2,666 32,020

The following actions are proposed to achieve these projections (figures are estimates only, and at today’s prices):

  1. Energy Efficiency improvements involving lighting, heating, ventilation, air- conditioning, insulation & fabric improvements to specific buildings; these could reduce emissions by 4,200 tCO2e over ten years at a capital cost of £3m per year(total £30m).
  2. Installation of a Water Source Heat Pump at the Garscube Campus in 2025. This is projected to displace 2,375 tCO2e with capital cost of £9m.
  3. Installation of a Water Source Heat Pump at Gilmorehill in 2030 projected to displace 3,800 tCO2e at a capital cost of £11m.
  4. Deployment of Air Source Heat Pump in suitable standalone buildings at a capital cost of £1.2m.
  5. Introduction of solar panels in suitable locations at a cost of £10m.

The total cost of these works is roughly estimated at £61.2m, exclusive of fees. In addition, we are assuming further grid decarbonisation, no further expansion of the estate beyond the western infirmary site, and a reduction in business travel flights and commuting emissions of 3% per annum until 2035, then stabilisation. Finally, the numbers assume that the University’s staff and student headcount will grow by only 3% a year over the period.

A requirement for carbon offsetting

We propose that the University focuses on reducing its carbon footprint as much as possible between now and 2035; we may, during this period, make use of carbon offsetting if we fail to meet the interim targets we set ourselves. After 2035, we propose to use offsetting on a larger scale to achieve a net zero position. Gold standard offsetting (involving carbon credits that are real and verifiable) costs £20 per tCO2. If emissions are reduced to 32,000 tCO2e per annum this would mean a cost of £640,000 per annum from 2035 to offset emissions to a net-zero position.

Offsetting is not just about salving our institutional conscience – it can also deliver tangible benefits. For example, reforested land in Scotland could provide research and learning opportunities for academics and students, while projects in Low- & Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) can improve the quality of life for people around the world; again, these interventions could be combined with research initiatives funded by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund and other sources. Organisations like the EAUC are exploring the scope for collaboration across the HE sector to provide a bespoke approach to offsetting which can be seamlessly linked to academic activity; the benefits for local biodiversity and local communities will also be paramount.

Additional interventions to consider

There are several other interventions which we should include in our strategy even if they are not essential for achieving the numbers set out above.

Firstly, we ought to address the issue of space utilisation much more seriously than we have up till now. Our use of space is patchy – there is considerable scope for progress in this area through central management of rooms, more efficient sharing of accommodation and strategic disinvestment of inefficient buildings. Flexible working policies (on which more below) could be an important part of this story.

We should work closely with Glasgow City Council, which is developing a plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. The University should contribute to and benefit from collaborative initiatives such as improved public transport, joined up active travel provision and city-wide low-carbon district heating networks7.

Thirdly, we may be able to reduce the impact of commuting by encouraging the use of electric and hybrid vehicles. Many members of staff live at a distance from the campuses and remain dependent on use of private vehicles for commuting; we may be able to encourage a trend which is already underway towards environmentally friendly vehicles through a range of financial and other incentives. The take-up of electric vehicles may advance more quickly than is assumed in the consultants’ projections, yielding further reductions in emissions.

In addition, there may be merit in implementing largely symbolic measures, such as continuing to foster biodiversity on the University’s campuses. These would have no appreciable impact on our carbon footprint but could help to raise awareness within and beyond the University community.

More generally, increased staff and student engagement in the sustainability agenda should lead to changes in behaviours throughout the institution that could further reduce our carbon footprint. We will consider below specific steps to help achieve this.

Climate change adaptation

In addition to the above, the University’s future climate resilience also needs to be addressed. Under the Climate Change Scotland Act (2009), the University has an obligation as a public body to ensure our estate is resilient in the future. We have already developed a Climate Change Adaptation Plan for the University, which describes a range of adaptation actions that we propose to take over the next 10 years. However, the University cannot achieve climate resilience in isolation – we must continue to address this through the Climate Ready Clyde partnership. Continued collaboration in such areas as transport infrastructure, utilities and IT will be essential.

Action on climate change – key strands

What are the specific steps we need to take to achieve carbon neutrality and resilience, and contribute more generally to the sustainability agenda? We propose to organise these around the following headings:

  • Engaging and empowering Our community
  • Promoting ffficiency
  • Governance and policy
  • Continuous improvement initiatives
  • Building resilience

1. Engaging and empowering our community

Under this heading, we will ensure that the climate emergency is placed at the heart of what we do over the next 20 years. We will strive to engage the entire University community and ensure that everyone is enabled to make a difference.

Specifically, we will:

  • Ensure that the forthcoming University Strategy places a strong emphasis on our commitment to addressing the climate emergency.
  • Launch a Centre for Sustainable Solutions that will signpost funding opportunities for academics, publicise our sustainability-themed research, ensure that sustainability is woven into the fabric of the curriculum, develop tools to improve staff/student knowledge and facilitate positive behaviour change.
  • Promote the development of Green Impact Teams across the University to encourage active engagement by staff.
  • Continue to use the GUEST (student intern) network to raise awareness and promote engagement within the student body.
  • Ensure clear and coherent communications regarding environmental actions at the University of Glasgow.
  • Create a new ECO-HUB space on campus to allow for more effective engagement with our student body.
  • Significantly enhance staff and student engagement through regular public forums to help forge an organisation-wide response to the climate emergency.
  • Organise an annual careers fair, showcasing green job opportunities to our students.
  • Overhaul and expand our catering offering to promote sustainable, climate-friendly, healthy diets, emphasising locally sourced produce, seasonality, organics, and vegetarian options.
  • Promote flexible working that fosters a healthy work/life balance, enables home- working where appropriate, and thus reduces the need to commute.
  • Continue to expand the range of online postgraduate programmes, short courses and MOOCs (massive online open courses) that we offer.

2. Promoting efficiency

By promoting efficiency, we mean ensuring that our estate and infrastructure is optimally organised to reduce our carbon footprint and minimise harm to the environment. The Smart Campus initiative offers a major strategic platform to address this area by harnessing cutting- edge digital technology.

We will:

  • Develop an asset management strategy which ensures that our estate is appropriately maintained, with a focus on improving energy efficiency and ensuring climate resilience.
  • Put in place robust project governance mechanisms to ensure that any building refurbishment work is carried out with sustainable outcomes in mind.
  • Improve the utilisation rates of both centrally and locally managed spaces and ensure that all newly designed and refurbished spaces adhere to agreed space specifications.
  • Exploit advances in renewable energy technology to ensure that our estate is heated in the most carbon-efficient manner, employing water and air source heat pumps, and solar panels.
  • Improve the energy efficiency of other infrastructure, including lighting, HVAC, fabric, and sensors.
  • Ensure that sustainability is prioritised as part of a revised video and telecommunications strategy, making it easier for staff and students to reduce unnecessary travel.
  • Seek a balance between on-campus and cloud-based data centres to ensure efficient power consumption.
  • Improve the utilisation rates for all our teaching laboratories and design new research facilities with energy efficiency in mind.
  • Design future buildings that are district heating network-ready and able to exploit low- carbon heat sources.
  • Drive further improvements in space efficiency and foster collaborative working practices by refurbishing office spaces that facilitate agile working.

3. Governance and policy

Under governance and policy, we will structure our governance and management, and allocate appropriate resource under both capital and revenue to initiatives that make a significant impact on our carbon footprint.

In particular, we will:

  • Ensure appropriate oversight of all climate emergency-related work through regular meetings of our Sustainability Working Group.
  • Monitor progress at Senior Management Group, University Court and other relevant forums.
  • Review our capital spending plans to ensure that there is sufficient resource available to effectively respond to the climate emergency.
  • Develop and implement a business travel policy and guidance, with the aim of reducing our carbon emissions from business-related air travel.
  • Develop a servicing strategy for our estate that is efficient, minimises the number of vehicle movements, reduces the associated impact on pollution (carbon emissions and particulates), and prioritises the safety of pedestrians and cyclists.
  • Determine the most appropriate form of carbon offsetting for the University to adopt.
  • Review all other existing environmental policies and action plans, in light of our declaration of climate emergency, to ensure they are fit for purpose (Energy Strategy, Strategic Travel and Transport Plan, Waste Strategy, Biodiversity Strategy, Design Standards, Sustainable Food Strategy).
  • Pursue opportunities to collaborate with the City of Glasgow and other local and national partners in order to further mitigate our carbon emissions.
  • Use the COP26 UN Climate Change Summit (in Glasgow, December 2020) to showcase our research output, along with our approach to both climate change mitigation and adaptation.

4. Continuous improvement initiatives

Under this heading, we will take forward a range of initiatives which help us reduce waste and contribute to the wider sustainability agenda.

  • Roll out improved internal recycling facilities across our estate over the next three years.
  • Re-launch the University’s ‘WARPit’ asset reuse portal, with a much broader focus than just furniture.
  • Install freely available water fountains for staff, student and visitors in all our main buildings.
  • Phase out single-use plastics from our catering operations by 2022.
  • Promote travel to campus by foot, bicycle or public transport.
  • Provide electric vehicle charge points for staff on campus.
  • Introduce the ‘Ecovadis’ system for monitoring sustainability-related risks and driving improvements in our supply chain.

5. Building resilience

Finally, under building resilience, we will lead or contribute to a range of initiatives which ensure that we are prepared for the effects of climate change on our operations over the decades to come.

In particular, we will:

  • Ensure that our estate is climate ready via implementation of our Climate Change Adaptation Plan.
  • Continue to play a role as an active partner in the Climate Ready Clyde initiative, influencing decision making at a city-level, to ensure that the city region is climate ready.
  • Freely exchange the knowledge we have gained from the Climate Ready Clyde partnership, to ensure that this innovative approach to delivering climate resilience can be replicated elsewhere.
  • Support and contribute towards the development of a Climate Change Adaptation Plan for the city region.

Conclusion and next steps

We commend this strategy and action plan to the University Court. It reflects the strength of feeling not only within the Sustainability Working Group but increasingly across the University community. Members of that community are keen to see the University of Glasgow play a lead role in tackling climate change – not only to eliminate its own carbon footprint but also to effect change in the UK and around the world.

We can do this through our example, through public engagement, via formal education, and through the world-changing research and knowledge exchange we undertake. By setting out a clear strategy and engaging hearts and minds throughout the University, we can also make our own community stronger, giving staff and students a sense of belonging to a common endeavour.

As a next step, we propose to consult widely across the staff and student bodies, while also engaging with alumni and other stakeholders. In doing so we will seek to raise awareness, garner support and fine-tune the action plan set out above. Thereafter, we will identify more detailed timescales under each action and undertake further work on resourcing requirements.

We will also identify appropriate interim targets for 2025 and 2030, consider further the place of offsetting prior to 2035 and reflect on the relationship between this strategy and our commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

We would welcome the wholehearted support of the University Court and invite continued engagement with the governing body over the coming months.

Dr David Duncan and Professor Dan Haydon
Co-Chairs, Sustainability Working Group, November 2019


1: See, for example, Los Angeles Times, 10 July 2019 – “Higher education groups worldwide warn of ‘climate emergency’, UN reports”.

2: https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/english_paris_agreement.pdf

3: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

4: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2008/27/pdfs/ukpga_20080027_en.pdf

5: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2019/15/section/1/enacted

6: The figures in the paper include Scope 1 (direct) and Scope 2 (indirect) emissions. They also include some Scope 3 emissions such as business travel but exclude emissions associated with student travel. For definitions of the Scopes, see https://www.carbontrust.com/resources/faqs/services/scope-3-indirect-carbon-emissions/

7: http://www.glasgow.gov.uk/councillorsandcommittees/viewDoc.asp?c=P62AFQDN0GZ30GNTDX