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

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Part 2: For students

2.1 Exploring tools to assess the carbon-based environmental impacts associated with learning activities in higher education

Here we introduce a Carbon Calculator tool for students that you can use to explore and calculate the energy consumption and carbon impacts associated with your learning activities on a particular course or module. (The principles behind such calculators and related ecological foot printing tools are discussed in Environment: treading lightly on the earth [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] which is also available via iTunes U.)

This Carbon Calculator was designed for the SusTEACH sustainable teaching and learning project at the OU and is part of the SusTEACH toolkit. It is based on a detailed environmental assessment methodology to examine the key sources of energy consumption and carbon impacts associated with learning activities, including travel, the purchase and use of ICT devices and educational materials, and choice of residential accommodation and the type of higher education system.

The SusTEACH calculator was developed following a review of the most up-to-date and well-researched studies to establish measures of the sources of energy consumption in megajoules (MJ), and carbon emissions in kilograms of carbon dioxide (kg CO2).

Your energy consumption and carbon impact is measured against the CATS credits (or hours of study) that are applicable to a course and related to the duration of the course that you are taking. The Carbon Calculator measures the impacts of learning activities associated with a course on energy consumption and CO2 emissions using a standard measure of energy consumption (MJ) and CO2 emissions (kg) ‘per student per 10 CATS credits’ (equivalent to 100 study hours) for the course.

Before exploring this tool, first watch the video introducing The SusTEACH Carbon Calculator

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The SusTEACH Carbon Calculator
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Explore the SusTEACH Carbon Calculator tool to calculate the energy consumption and carbon impacts of your own learning activities on a course.

Figure 1

Download or open the SusTEACH Carbon Calculator for Students in Microsoft Excel to begin exploration.

You should find the tool easy to use but the user guide is available to help you to navigate through the tool if you need additional help.


The SusTEACH Carbon Calculator for Students helps you to calculate the energy consumption and carbon impacts associated with your learning activities on a course using the measure per student per 100 study hours/10 CATS credits.

You can compare your impacts with the students in the SusTEACH study as a useful comparison.

You can compare your impacts with modes and levels of travel or ICT use that would result in similar impacts.

You can also compare your results with an example in Box 2.

Box 2 Using the Carbon Calculator to assess carbon impacts associated with learning activities on a course

Tavish is a full-time student on a course at a campus-based university that has a planned provision for 100 study hours (10 CATS credits), which takes place over a ten-week period. During the term he lives away from home in a university residence on campus. He cycles for all regular and occasional journeys with the exception of making one return journey of 100 miles by car (with a 1.3–1.6 litre petrol engine) between his term-time residence and usual home during a three-month period.

He purchased a laptop and uses this for five hours in a typical week for course-related learning, and spends three hours of this connected to the Internet. He did not buy any books or have educational materials provided by lecturers; although he used ten sheets for printing and five pages for photocopying in a typical week.

Using the calculator, the carbon impacts associated with his learning activities are estimated at 226 kg CO2 per 100 hours/10 CATS credits. This is slightly lower than the average student’s impacts found in the SusTEACH research project, and is quite typical for a student studying at a campus-based university.

Tavish is considering whether he could lower his carbon impacts, by living at home rather than living between two residences. This would mean that he would have to travel the 100-mile round trip to the campus every day, which he could do by rail. Using the calculator to process these details, his carbon impacts are estimated at 191 kg CO2 per 100 hours/10 CATS credits.

His impacts are lower because he has reduced the residential energy use associated with living in a university residence and because he has chosen to travel by rail. When students travel from home to attend classes this eliminates the energy impacts associated with living in university accommodation or shared houses or flats away from their usual home.

This seems to be a good idea for reducing carbon impacts but is it a sustainable approach? Tavish may decide that travelling such distances daily by train is too time-consuming and decide to drive a car (with a 1.3-1.6 litre petrol engine) instead to the campus. In this case, his carbon impacts associated with learning on the course would be estimated at 1515 kg CO2 per 100 hours/10 CATS credits.

This huge increase is because public transport is a less carbon-intensive mode of travel and sharing public transport helps to divide the CO2 emissions per passenger mile.Travelling by rail has a significantly lower carbon impact per passenger mile than travelling by petrol car with this engine size, and is only 5 per cent of equivalent travel by petrol car.

Overall, Tavish’s decision to live at home rather than at a second residence may lead to lower carbon impacts providing care is taken to use less carbon-intensive modes of travel, or to reduce the frequency or distance of journeys taken.

This example shows that there may be trade-offs between a decision to reduce residential energy consumption by living at home during studies and the consequences for travel-related impacts. This shows that when making changes to your learning-related activities, it is important to consider the trade-offs between decisions and the knock-on effects on carbon emissions.

You may like to explore the tool further to see what difference it makes if you decide to make any changes to your activities:

  • Travel: What difference does it make if you reduce some of your journeys or use different modes of transport? You may be aware that different modes of travel have different carbon impacts. For example, diesel cars have lower carbon emissions per passenger mile than cars with equivalent-sized engines using petrol or LPG fuels. Travel by express coach has lower carbon emissions than rail travel per passenger mile.
  • ICT devices: Does it make a difference if you purchase different ICT devices to support your learning activities? Using the calculator shows that the carbon emissions produced from using a tablet for 100 study hours based on lifecycle studies is a quarter of the emissions associated with using a desktop PC. You could also explore if reducing your use of ICT devices would make much difference to your overall impacts associated with your course activities.

  • Paper and print: You may explore what difference it would make to your carbon impact if you reduced your use of paper for note-taking, printing or photocopying, or other educational materials.
  • Residential energy use: What difference would it make if you stayed in your usual home during your course rather than moving to live in university accommodation or another additional residence? This would eliminate most of the energy consumption associated with a second home, although it may increase your regular travel impacts.

    You can also use the calculator to explore the impacts of using different fuels and systems to heat your home. What difference would it make if your home was heated by oil compared with an efficient condensing boiler?

  • Campus site operations: You can explore the impacts of studying at different types of HE institutions. The calculators use information based on the average energy consumption associated with campus-based and distance teaching institutions. Distance-teaching HE systems have higher numbers of students learning on each course, so this achieves efficiencies of scale, which results in lower carbon emissions per student in UK institutions.

When you have finished exploring the Carbon Calculator tool you should have some ideas for actions to lower the carbon emissions of your learning activities. For example, perhaps you could use less carbon-intensive modes of travel, reduce the number of journeys or consider sharing journeys to divide and reduce your individual carbon impacts. Try to think of some actions that you could take to reduce the energy consumption and carbon emissions of your learning activities.