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The environmental impact of teaching and learning
The environmental impact of teaching and learning

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1.2 Approaches undertaken by HE institutions to reduce carbon emissions


Can you think of some ways that your institution is tackling environmental impacts and trying to reduce sources of carbon emissions?


There are many possible ways, but the main ways that HE institutions are tackling environmental impacts include policies and initiatives that:

  • improve the efficiency of new and existing buildings
  • install more efficient equipment and systems and renewable technologies
  • establish initiatives promoting more sustainable transport, procurement of products and services, energy use behaviours, waste recycling and reduction, and water management
  • teach students and staff about sustainability.

You may already know what your HE institution is doing – but if not, a quick search on its website should provide you with a more comprehensive picture of what is happening. You could also try to find out about some of these carbon reduction schemes.

The focus in HE has been mainly on greening campus buildings. This is achieved by, for example, improving buildings insulation and installing energy efficient lighting, heating systems, controls and other energy efficient equipment. It may also be achieved by installing renewable technologies, such as solar water heating, biomass boilers, photovoltaic (PV) panels and micro-wind turbine systems.

Sustainability programmes often cover more than simply greening buildings and technology. For example, here is a short video about The Open University’s carbon reduction programme, introduced by the Energy Manager, Mike Sackett.

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Carbon reduction programmes at The Open University
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Box 1 Carbon-reduction programmes at The Open University

The Open University (OU) is undertaking a programme of carbon-reduction schemes throughout its estate to meet government targets. This includes measures to improve the thermal insulation of buildings and the installation of microgeneration heating systems, such as a ground source heat pump system, and other efficient equipment to support the operation of ICT systems, such as chillers and compressors.

Some renewable technologies have been also been installed, such as PV (photovoltaic) panels that provide a small fraction of the OU’s electricity requirements. Another initiative replaced essential streetlights with LED (light-emitting diode) lighting and switched off non-essential car park lights. 'This alone reduced emissions by 112 tonnes of CO2 over a year'.

Other sustainability initiatives have reduced water use, and the amount of waste sent to landfill has been significantly reduced as a result of the introduction of various waste management schemes.

The carbon reduction programme of initiatives is ongoing as the OU strives to achieve significant carbon reductions.

Many HE institutions, including The Open University, have sustainability policies that address wider sources of carbon impacts covering transport, procurement of products and services and ICT systems, and seek a wide engagement of staff and students with the implementation of sustainability initiatives. Such initiatives include the reduction of waste, energy and paper consumption, and the promotion of sustainable travel plans, as well as considering the different sources of energy.

There are a number of free courses covering these topics in details such as An introduction to sustainable energy [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] and Why sustainable energy matters. For further reading on carbon reduction initiatives, see the Carbon Trust’s higher education case studies.

A big contribution from many HE institutions and colleges is the development of teaching about sustainability as part of some undergraduate and postgraduate programmes covering design, technology, science and engineering. This is also incorporated into staff development and training in some institutions. More details can be found in the Education for Sustainable Development initiative.

In this section, you have learned that HE institutions are engaged in carbon reduction programmes to:

  • ‘green’ the buildings and technologies in campus estates
  • establish and implement sustainability policies that cover transport, ICT systems, buildings and energy use, the procurement of products and services, and waste and water management
  • engage staff and students with sustainability initiatives
  • teach about sustainability in the curriculum.

A report from the Global University Network claims that the challenges of supporting the transition to sustainable higher education have not yet been fully addressed (Tilbury, 2011).

So what other measures may be taken to help achieve carbon reduction in higher education? To answer this we need to focus on one of its primary activities: teaching and learning.