The UG’s climate ambitions
Seawater lapping at the steps of the Academy building, forest fires at holiday resorts, and even more bitter winters: all dire possibilities if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s August report is anything to go by.
The report can be described as a reality check – one with rather simple conclusions. Unless immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are made, holding warming to 1.5 degrees looks untenable and 2 degrees looks increasingly unlikely. The UG, although a small fish in a big pond, is trying to pull its weight.
Money best spent
Key to UG’s role is the release and adoption of the UG’s sustainability roadmap 2021-2026. It would seem that the university, which released 34,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019, is making strides in the right direction.
Simple extrapolation tells you this figure represents roughly 0.000187 percent of all Dutch emissions in the year 2019. The roadmap, which sees the UG’s sustainability commitments divided across three areas (planet, performance, and people), is the guiding sustainability document for the next five years. It decides where and how money can be best spent to reduce the emissions of the UG.
The response of the university board surprised me, management was really positive about the scope and scale of the report
It might surprise some to learn that as of 2020, the UG ranks seventh place on the Universitas GreenMetric UI. The metric, run by Universitas Indonesia, compares self-reported data from universities in fields like Setting and Infrastructure, Energy and Climate Change, Waste, Water, Transportation and Education.
Dick Jager, the program manager of integrated sustainability, praises the roadmap’s reception by the university’s board. ‘Their response surprised me, management was really positive about the scope and scale of the report. This has been a real change over the past years. Students are really concerned about sustainability, it’s on the agenda.’
The UG’s headline promise is to be CO2 neutral by 2035. But that promise was made on their behalf by the trade body the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) to do so.
In the meantime, the UG pledges to reduce emissions by 30 percent from 34,000 tons in 2019 by the year 2026. Students and staff here in the year 2026 can also look forward to 25 percent of the energy they use being generated by the university’s own means. This final portion of emissions is the hardest, says Jager: ‘All of the low hanging fruit has been picked, now the difficult projects must begin.’
While this may seem admirable from afar upon closer inspection, professor of energy economics Machiel Mulder believes the approach is back to front. ‘The attention should maybe be directed at energy saving. Every unit of energy not consumed reduces carbon emissions.’ The International Energy Agency agrees with him, consumption of energy must reduce globally by at least 4 percent per annum to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees.
One of these difficult projects is the increasing of sustainable heating and cooling systems via an elaborate network of aquifer thermal storage channels to be buried beneath the city campus. This system uses boreholes drilled into aquifers beneath the city and then pumps to circulate the cool, aquifer water through UG buildings in the city centre before it is returned to the aquifer.
According to Jager, cooling buildings uses the lion’s share of energy in keeping buildings at comfortable temperatures. ‘It’s a tricky project in the city centre. Many buildings already have bores in place and we really need to ensure there’s enough water left in the aquifers before we start drilling.’ Given that the outcome of the project is included in the latest roadmap, one would hope there is space.
Emissions from mobility and food are also poised to tumble under the roadmap. The UG wants aviation emissions generated on university business abroad to account for a mere 10 percent of total carbon emissions by the end of the roadmap’s tenure. Additionally, each flight taken must be offset by carbon compensation schemes paid for by the UG – those which plant forests in places like Sweden or Russia.
Those students and staff who take meals in the UG’s canteens can look forward to meals made with meat sourced from farms with a Better Life label three or above, and up to between 60-95 percent of all catering will be vegetarian or plant based.
The past performance of the UG already shows that it is quite challenging to reach targets
The UG has lofty ambitions but given past performance meeting them might prove a challenge, particularly given that only sixty percent of the previous roadmap was brought to fruition within the time period. Professor Mulder believes that these ambitions must be taken with a pinch of salt ‘the past performance [of the UG] already shows that it is quite challenging to reach targets.’
Carbon neutrality by 2020 was a key target of the previous roadmap, but while reductions in CO2 emissions were made from 69,000 tonnes in 2015 to 34,000 tonnes by the end of last year, this counts towards only half of the goal.
Targets to make the UG more energy efficient were also missed. A goal to improve energy efficiency by 30 percent when compared against 2005 levels only managed an 11 percent improvement, a 0.73 percent efficiency increase per annum. This, in part because of a delay in the opening of the new Feringa building which had been prematurely counted towards efficiency targets.
The cornerstone sustainability projects of the latest roadmap are again ways to increase the efficient heating and cooling of buildings and reduce CO2 emissions by switching from electricity made sustainable via carbon credits to electricity generated wholly by sustainable means.
‘In the past the UG has purchased “renewable energy” but this is electricity generated in Norway via, say hydropower, used in Norway and then the green energy credits are sold to Dutch companies who can offset their carbon electricity against it by saying “look, we helped finance the Norwegian generator”, explains Jager.
This is set to change as the university’s electricity contact comes up for tender at the end of this year. Jager hopes that a contract can be sought in which green energy is bought that is generated entirely within the Netherlands.
‘In the Netherlands there is a scale of sustainability – from one, to ten being excellent, the UG board indicated they wanted to be at 9 or above’, recalls Jager. While a noble goal, some may raise doubts that this is even possible at all.
This is because holding back further improvements to the university’s sustainability targets are the vast number of heritage listed buildings in the city centre. The retrofitting of these buildings with improved insulation, double glazing and better heating require costly permits and extra municipal consents.
It’s about choices, this money could best be spent elsewhere
According to Jager, this puts in jeopardy the UG’s wish to meet the municipality’s energy standards, having all buildings in the city at or above energy level C on their building sustainability index.
To get around this, the UG in agreement with the municipality is investigating whether an ‘average efficiency score can be taken from all university buildings and then presented as the score for individual buildings too’, explains Jager. One has to wonder if this is really in the spirit of ‘working with regional partners’ in a way that sees emissions reduced.
Although bureaucratically difficult it is possible to refit older buildings, it just costs money. ‘The UG would have to spend roughly six to seven million euros a year to meet the costs of retrofits’, says Jager. ‘It’s about choices, this money could best be spent elsewhere’, he adds.
Mulder suggests while the plan is laudable ‘it is, however, not so clear about the measures. Often, the proposed measures are quite vague or general.’
He suggests that rather than a big tent plan to appeal to all and sundry, a more targeted approach would work better. Like the purchasing and then canceling of European Union carbon allowances via the bloc’s emissions trading scheme, ‘which basically means that these allowances are withdrawn from the system.’