Climate change: How to become a 'net-zero' college

Boris Johnson unveiled his plan to reach net-zero emissions this week – what can colleges do to tackle climate change?

Kate Parker

Climate change: How to become net-zero at your college

“Two weeks ago, my governors signed off on declaring a climate and ecological emergency at the college. This is something we are really passionate about. As education organisations, we all have a responsibility around this and it's time to step up and look at it very seriously,” says Melanie Lenehan, principal of Fircroft College in Birmingham.

This week, prime minister Boris Johnson unveiled his £12 billion 10-point plan to tackle the climate emergency, a year on from the government’s legally binding commitment to meet net-zero emissions by 2050.

And many colleges are already leading the way. 

More: John McDonnell urges students to act on climate change

Opinion: How to make your curriculum eco-friendly

Background: Colleges and universities to launch climate commission

Earlier this summer, a group of organisations including the Climate Commission, the Association of Colleges, consultancy firm Nous Group and 12 further education colleges joined forces to produce a Climate Action Roadmap for Colleges. 

Colleges tackling climate change

The roadmap provides colleges with practical steps they can take in five areas to reach net-zero: leadership and governance, teaching, learning and research, estates and operations, partnerships and engagement, and data collection.

The steps are divided into three stages of progress: "emerging", "established" and "leading" – and throughout the UK, there are many colleges well into that journey. 

Climate action road map

Serving vegan food

Fircroft is one such college. In 2007, the college suffered a substantial fire that resulted in buildings being closed for the best part of a year. When addressing the damage, sustainability was at the forefront of decision-making: solar panels were put in and the estate’s emissions use was surveyed to ensure that when it reopened, energy use was low.

And serious changes have been made to the day-to-day running of the college, too, says Lenehan. When students and staff sit down to eat in the canteen, there is only a plant-based menu on offer. Initially, it did raise eyebrows, she says.

“When I started to talk to students and staff about this last year, there was a bit of, 'Hmm, not sure how that's gonna work, but we're kind of willing to give it a go.' People can add in protein if they want, so we haven’t gone completely meat-free. But it starts from the point of you know that the offer is plant-based and then if you want to add in proteins, there’s one or two choices,” Lenehan says. 

“And now students have said, 'I didn't realise that vegan food could be just as delicious.' Sometimes it's just about breaking down some of the kind of thoughts that people have.”

The college also offers short courses on sustainability, and is looking to build a sustainability module into every course on offer and to embed the sustainable development goals into every aspect of the curriculum. 

The college of choice for green skills

Dumfries and Galloway College in Scotland is setting itself up to be the college of choice when it comes to green skills. 

Principal Joanna Campbell says that the college has always been involved in the green agenda due to its location. The Dumfries and Galloway region has one of the largest land masses in Scotland, and the local authority is striving to be the first net-zero region in Scotland. 

Campbell says that the college was at the forefront of providing training to Scottish Power for years before climate change became “in vogue”. However, a strategic plan developed in 2018, Ambition 2025, set in stone the steps to become a centre of eco-activity. 

As part of the plan, the college set up a climate emergency group made up of staff and students and also signed a climate emergency charter. The college has already beaten its own carbon emission targets by 25 per cent, and is two years ahead of where it should be. Campbell says this has been achieved by managing facilities, promoting a cycle-to-work scheme, introducing carbon-friendly food packaging and implementing a ban on bottled water. 

The college has also opened a £1.8 billion clean energy hub, funded by the Scottish government and Scottish Power’s Green Economy Fund. The building is resourced using renewable energy and has wind turbines, solar panels and rainwater harvesting. 

The college has also been working with the local authority to train staff to be able to retrofit buildings and to fit electric vehicle charging points – and is looking across the curriculum to increase the number of courses on offer that support the green recovery.

It’s a massive effort – and one that Campbell says couldn’t have happened without whole-college buy-in. 

“I had a vision early doors coming into the role as a new principal that I wanted us to be known as the college of choice for energy skills. I wanted us to be very much lined up to that ambition that the Scottish government has of net-zero emissions by 2045," she explains.

“I knew that in order for us as an institution to achieve that, it needed to be a whole-college approach and I needed to empower my staff and my students to all get involved in this. I had this vision and I needed everybody to buy into it. And there is so much willingness and enthusiasm for this – it was a very easy sell.” 

Tackling climate change in colleges

Having a lasting impact

At Basingstoke College of Technology, the eco-focus was kick-started in 2013 when solar panels were installed. There’s a display up in reception to demonstrate how much power the panels generate and at what point they will pay for themselves – by 2022, the college will be on free electricity. 

The college also encourages staff to cycle to work instead of driving, and offers them a "green payment" at the start of the year if they don’t require a parking space. And when it comes to students, instead of using the 16-19 bursary funds to pay for bus or train passes, the college uses the funds to buy bikes.  

The college has also banned single-use plastic completely, and only uses biodegradable plastic – a move that was driven by the students.

David Moir, deputy principal, finance and resources, says that it was an expensive process – but the college felt that it was the right thing to do for students.

“The biggest issue was the cost," he says. "You can buy a thousand plastic knives and it will only cost a few pennies, but you buy the same version in biodegradable and it’s 10, 15, 20 times more expensive. It was mainly about overcoming the barrier of cost. Staff went out to find places that could supply suitable alternatives. They are out there, you just have to go and look for them and do your research.

“We think it's really important to listen to student concerns because the generations that we've got coming through college now are going to be the ones that make an impact in the future. It seems the older you get, the less inclined people are generally to change their ways. So increasing their awareness and understanding of it when they’re young, encouraging them to be thinking about it and doing things differently, then we'll have a lasting impact.” 

Lessons to be learned

So what could other colleges learn from the experiences of Fircroft, Dumfries and Galloway, and Basingstoke?

Moir says that one of the best things his college does is inviting a company in each year to measure its carbon footprint – it brings all the initiatives together into one focus, he says, and shows the true impact of the college’s work. 

“Putting in panels and LED lights, those make quite a big difference in carbon footprint. Switching from plastic cutlery to biodegradable cutlery doesn't really make any difference, but that's a more visible change that people can identify,” he says. 

“People don't really see the solar panels and LED lighting – it isn’t obviously different. I would say visible things make more of an impact on students, some of the operating things in the estate makes a bigger impact on the overall carbon. It’s about showing everyone the overall picture,” Moir explains. 

Campbell says that colleges don’t need to make the journey alone and should make the most of the partnerships around them. 

“Collaboration is key: you need to collaborate with the employers to find out what the ask is,  and to reach out to institutions that can come together with you to work in a symbiotic way,” she says. 

She says that she would encourage colleges to tap into the knowledge and resources in the student and staff body. 

“They will have ideas that you have not even contemplated, and what I found was that when I started to reach out across staff and students, was that some of the ideas that they were coming forward with were absolutely phenomenal. There's so much enthusiasm, and leaders need to tap into that.”

And Lenehan says that colleges need to commit to tackling the crisis continuously throughout the year: the effort can’t be a “one-off”. She says that leaders should look at the Climate Action Roadmap produced and use it to put together a plan. 

“It has some really practical solutions, like starting off with surveying your students and seeing what kinds of things they're interested in, what kinds of things they think that college should be doing. Encouraging the student voice to be at the centre of it all is really important,” she says. “Sometimes it can seem so enormous, you don't know where to start.” 

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a schools and colleges content producer.

Find me on Twitter @KateParkerTes

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