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January 2010/01
Policy development
Statement of policy

This report is for information

Carbon reduction target and strategy for higher education in England

A carbon reduction target and strategy for higher education in England.

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions
Of interest to those responsible for: Senior management, Estates, Finance, Procurement
Reference: 2010/01
Publication date: January 2010
Enquiries to: Joanna Simpson
tel 0117 931 7411

Foreword and executive summary (read online)


Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing the world. Universities and colleges have a big role to play in tackling it. This strategy gives practical effect to our commitment to work together to help the UK to reduce its greenhouse emissions substantially.

As a sector, we are in a unique position to lead the way. Many institutions are already reducing their own carbon footprint through energy efficiency and better environmental management. They are buying more sustainable goods and services.

Our researchers are not only investigating the potential impact of climate change, they are working with industry and the public sector to develop innovative solutions to the challenges it creates. Our students and graduates are shaping and leading the debate and the responses to it at every level of society. As a sector, we can be leaders in our response at all levels.

There is no doubt about the seriousness of the issue. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that climate change is unequivocal and that human activities make a big contribution. The 2006 Stern Review showed how the benefits of strong early action greatly outweigh the costs of inaction. The overwhelming view of scientists is that unless we make deep inroads into our carbon emissions, we are likely to see adverse climate change with severe impacts on coastal communities, food supplies and the number of species in the world.

So we are pleased that, through our consultation, we have secured the commitment of the sector to reducing its carbon emissions, in many cases building on work already under way. Of course, this is just one important aspect of sustainable development. HEFCE, Universities UK and GuildHE are working together on this and other initiatives to ensure a strong future not only for our environment but also for our sector.

We should not underestimate the size of this challenge, nor its cost. The targets that society and the sector must achieve will not be easy: reducing our direct emissions and those caused by our electricity purchases by 34 per cent by 2020 (against 1990 levels) and 80 per cent by 2050 will demand creativity, co-ordination and commitment throughout the sector.

Each university and college will need to turn those national goals into institutional targets that can be measured over time against regular milestones. How they do so will vary considerably. An arts-focused university may have a very different carbon footprint from one with a strong science base. But the need to act is universal, and we can all ensure that our buildings are better insulated, our energy use is better controlled and our purchases are more considered.

As you introduce your targets, you will not be on your own. We will continue to share examples of how others in the sector have made a difference. HEFCE’s capital funding will provide financial incentives to support better carbon management as you renew your estate and buildings.

Together, we can – and must – meet the carbon challenge.

Sir Alan Langlands
Chief Executive, HEFCE
Professor Steve Smith
President, Universities UK
Vice-Chancellor, University of Exeter

Executive summary


1.   This document sets out HEFCE, Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE's revised strategy for carbonSee note 1 reductions for higher education in England following feedback received on our document 'Consultation on a carbon reduction target and strategy for higher education in England' (HEFCE 2009/27)See note 2.


2.   Responses to the consultation on HEFCE's 2008 sustainable development strategy and action plan ('Sustainable development in HE – consultation on 2008 update to strategic statement and action plan', HEFCE 2008/18) demonstrated a high level of support (70 per cent) for a higher education carbon reduction strategy.

3.   The Climate Change Act 2008 aims to improve carbon management and help the transition towards a low-carbon economy in the UK. It sets the world’s first legally binding reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions of at least 34 per cent by 2020 and at least 80 per cent by 2050, against a 1990 baseline.

4.   Higher education needs to play its part in meeting national targets for carbon reduction. The grant letters from the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills to HEFCE of 18 January 2008 and 21 January 2009 contained specific requirements that incorporated the requirements of the Climate Change Act.

5.   Setting targets is essential to identify the size of the challenge, co-ordinate efforts nationally and internationally, and demonstrate commitment to meaningful change. However, targets alone do not achieve results. They need to be supported by a strategy so that the methods by which the targets are to be achieved can be agreed and the necessary actions and investment put in place. The intention of this strategy is to focus efforts in areas that offer the greatest carbon reduction return and identify issues that need further action. It sets out areas where we will work with institutions and other stakeholders to achieve carbon reductions. It will be for individual institutions to decide, within a national set of targets, how to reduce, measure, review and report progress on their own emissions.

6.   HEFCE has already signalled to institutions a more demanding approach to carbon reduction and the need for carbon plans. Our 2008 and 2009 grant letters from the Secretary of State asked us to establish a link between performance against carbon plans – in effect, carbon reduction – and future capital allocations. HEFCE will achieve this by adapting its Capital Investment Framework.

Key points

7.   This strategy comprises:

  1. A sector-level target for carbon reductions that is in line with UK targets.
  2. A requirement for institutions to set their own targets for 2020 for scopes 1 and 2 emissionsSee note 3 against a 2005 baselineSee note 4. This year is being used as a baseline because it is used for reporting against UK targets, and work done for HEFCE by SQW ConsultingSee note 5 demonstrated that robust data for scopes 1 and 2 are available for that year at institutional level. This will provide consistency across the sector against which progress can be monitored and reported.
  3. A commitment from institutions to achieve actual improvements through actions that are appropriate for their institution, recognising the diversity of the sector.
  4. Support from HEFCE, UUK and GuildHE for institutions to achieve carbon reductions.
  5. Funding incentives – in particular HEFCE will link capital funding to performance against carbon management plans.
  6. Plans for annual monitoring and reporting on progress against the sector-level target.
  7. A method of regularly evaluating the approach and taking action to learn from progress to date.

8.   Overall the consultation feedback demonstrated:

  1. A high level of support for sector-level targets that are in line with UK targets for carbon emission reductions. The sector agreed that it should commit to a reduction in scope 1 and 2 emissions of 34 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050 against a 1990 baseline.
  2. Widespread agreement that higher education needs to play its part in reducing carbon emissions and that it is uniquely placed to lead the way. This role extends beyond the traditional estates function as institutions have a valuable role to play in promoting carbon reductions through their other activities including teaching, research and public communications.
  3. Commitment to reducing emissions across all scopes and a wish to develop consistent methodology for reporting scope 3 emissions.

Action required

9.   Institutions are called on to contribute to the sector-level target by reducing their carbon emissions.


  1. In this document 'carbon' is used as a shorthand for carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e).
  2. All HEFCE publications can be read on the HEFCE web-site.
  3. The World Resource Institute developed a classification of emission sources around three 'scopes': 'scope 1' emissions are direct emissions that occur from sources owned or controlled by the organisation, for example emissions from combustion in owned or controlled boilers/furnaces/vehicles; 'scope 2' accounts for emissions from the generation of purchased electricity consumed by the organisation; 'scope 3' covers all other indirect emissions that are a consequence of the activities of the organisation, but occur from sources not owned or controlled by the organisation – for example, commuting and procurement.
  4. All baselines mentioned in this report are measured on an academic year. For example, a 1990 baseline measures emissions from August 1990 to July 1991 and a 2005 baseline measures emissions from August 2005 to July 2006.
  5. 'Research into a carbon reduction target and strategy for Higher Education in England: a report to HEFCE' (SQW Energy, SQW Consulting, July 2009) can be read on the HEFCE web-site.