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Author: Sally Caird

The drive to sustainability in Higher Education

Updated Monday, 14 February 2022

Driving the transition towards environmental sustainability and net zero in Higher Education (HE).

At COP26 the parties agreed to work towards further reductions to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) to prevent catastrophic climate change. Transitional pathways need to be set, not just at national levels, but across sectors to achieve net-zero GHGE targets agreed under the COP 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming increases to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial temperature levels. This endeavour involves all of us.

Over recent decades, the higher education (HE) sector has been active with a range of environmental sustainability initiatives, although much more will need to be done to achieve net-zero targets. Taken together such sustainability initiatives particularly support the following Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (UN, 2015):
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
  • SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action
Such HE sustainability drives can be classified into three broad areas: Sustainable campus initiatives; Education for Sustainable Development (ESD); and sustainable HE teaching and learning systems.

Sustainable campus initiatives

Most HE institutions have established sustainability policies to manage campus buildings and site operations, for example, regarding building construction and operations, procurement processes, information and communication technologies (ICT) systems efficiency, pollution control, water and waste management, and campus design and planning policies aimed at preserving green spaces, wildlife and biodiversity and so on.

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Education for sustainable development (ESD)

Also known as ‘Sustainability education’ and ‘Education for sustainability’, the ESD initiative was established to integrate sustainability and environmental literacy in the curriculum – called ‘greening the curriculum’ by some - to encourage pro-environmental behaviours regarding human impacts on the planet. ESD curricula usually include environmental studies and science content, but also often cover social and economic aspects of sustainable development.

Sustainable HE teaching and learning models

Few studies have looked at how the design of HE teaching and learning systems impacts energy consumption and carbon emissions (let alone other potential environmental impacts). A complex question! Some of the earliest research was pioneered by The Open University with the first major quantitative study, the ‘Factor 10 Visions’ study ‘Towards Sustainable HE’ (Roy et al. 2005; Roy et al. 2008) followed by the Jisc-funded SusTEACH research and development project – ‘Sustainability Tools for Environmental Appraisal of Carbon impacts of HE teaching models using ICTs’ that I was involved in (Caird et al. 2015a). The Factor 10 Visions and SusTEACH studies undertook an environmental audit of both distance-taught and campus-based HE modules/courses in UK institutions, including staff and student travel; the purchase and use of ICT devices; printed educational materials and paper; student residential energy use; and campus buildings and site operations (Caird et al. 2015b). This enabled a carbon-based environmental assessment of the main sources of the energy and carbon dioxide emissions involved in the production and delivery of HE modules/courses which was standardised per 100 student hours of planned teaching and learning (which is 10 credits in the UK based Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme).

Factor 10 Visions found that the production and delivery of distance-taught HE courses on average consumed 87% less energy and produced 85% fewer carbon dioxide emissions than campus-based face-to-face taught HE courses when standardised per 100 hours of student teaching and learning. Similarly looking at the transformation of HE teaching and learning models using ICTs and innovative online pedagogies, SusTEACH showed that distance HE teaching and learning models (including print-based distance learning models, blended ICT-enhanced models, and online models for module production and delivery) on average consumed 88% less energy and produced 83% fewer carbon dioxide emissions than campus-based face-to-face teaching and learning models (including traditional face-to-face models and blended ICT-enhanced models), again when standardised per 100 hours of student teaching and learning (Caird et al. 2015a). The striking differences found in both studies are explained by the major reduction in the amount of student travel, economies and efficiencies of scale in campus site operations, and the near-elimination of residential energy use associated with students’ accommodation.

Designing sustainable HE teaching and learning models

Studies such as the OU-led Factor 10 Visions and SusTEACH studies have shown that existing HE sustainability initiatives should be broadened beyond considering the impacts of campus site buildings and operations, and ‘greening the curriculum’ to thinking about the design of HE teaching and learning models and systems themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic and the greater interest in online teaching and the use of online pedagogies across the HE sector provides an opportunity to do just that, although people need the tools to do that.

From all our findings, I designed the SusTEACH toolkit with Andy Lane and Ed Swithenby to support the planning of sustainable courses, modules and qualification programmes. This includes tools and resources for lecturers and students available through a free course on ‘The environmental impact of teaching and learning’ on OpenLearn. The toolkit provides support for embedding sustainability practices among students and teachers, thereby supporting HE institutional transformation towards environmental sustainability. I would be interested to know if you use the toolkit and any suggestions for how it might be improved.


  • Caird, S., Lane, A., Swithenby, E., Roy, R., Potter, S. (2015a) ‘Design of higher education teaching models and carbon impacts’, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 16(1) pp. 96–111. Accepted manuscript available at: (Accessed: 7 March 2022.)
  • Caird, S., Swithenby, E., Lane, A. (2015b) ‘The SusTEACH methodology: assessment of the environmental impacts of higher education teaching models and development of an environmental appraisal toolkit’, The Open University. Available at: (Accessed: 7 Marc.h 2022)
  • Roy, R., Potter, S., Yarrow, K., Smith, M. (2005) ‘Towards sustainable higher education: Environmental impacts of conventional campus, print-based and electronic distance/open learning systems. Final Report DIG-08’, Design Innovation Group, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. Available at: 
  • Roy, R., Potter, S., Yarrow, K. (2008) ‘Designing low carbon higher education systems: Environmental impacts of campus and distance learning systems’, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 9(2): pp. 116–130.
  • United Nations (UN) (2015) ‘Sustainable development goals’, Available at: (Accessed 7 March 2022)
  • Caird, S. and Lane, A. (2013) The Environmental Impact of Teaching and Learning’ OpenLearn (Accessed 7 March 2022)

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