Strategic Carbon Management within the UK Higher Education Sector




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De Montfort University


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Peer reviewed


Climate change and the rapid rise of greenhouse gas emissions are emerging as one of the greatest challenges for the modern world. Organisations are under increasing pressure from governments and stakeholders to reduce carbon emissions from their business operations for climate change mitigation. The Higher Education (HE) sector has significant social, environmental and economic impacts alongside a key leadership role in society and is not exempt from challenging carbon reduction targets, as outlined in the UK Government’s Climate Change Act 2008. In 2005, total HE carbon emissions were 3.339 MtCO2, a rise of 33% since 1990. In 2012-13, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) consumed 7.9 billion kWh of energy and produced 2.3 million tonnes of carbon emissions, which strengthens the role of HEIs in implementing strategic carbon management (SCM). The term ‘carbon management’ is popular in the grey literature and policy landscape from operational perspective, but ‘strategic carbon management’ is an under-researched area, especially in the context of HE sector. Therefore, the central aim of the research is to explore if and how universities are responding to the challenge of climate change by implementing strategic carbon management. The research adopted a mixed-methods approach including content analysis of universities’ carbon management plans (CMPs), semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders, a quantitative survey of the HE sector and an in-depth case study of De Montfort University’s (DMU) carbon management process. The study found that while the HE sector as a whole has demonstrated both policy and strategy commitment to carbon management, the performance of individual universities varies significantly and there is often a need to embed the process more effectively within the whole organisation. Despite a need for improvement, various initiatives distinguish the performance of carbon management in HE, but there is a long way to go. This has been complicated as this research was conducted against the backdrop of seismic policy changes within the HE sector. This shifting policy context is explored and examined and in part explains why financial savings and policies are the most important drivers for SCM. On the other hand, universities are facing barriers such as lack of time and resources (HR), complex buildings stock, estate development and business growth, lack of capital funding, priority to the core business and conflicts, lack of senior management leadership and lack of strong policy framework. This study identified seven factors for successfully embedding SCM. These are: (1) Senior management leadership, (2) Funding and resources, (3) Stakeholder engagement, (4) Planning, (5) Governance and management, (6) Responsibility, and (7) Evaluation and reporting. The research findings are pertinent for HE and broader public sector practitioners both in UK and abroad as successful carbon management is crucial. A strategic carbon management framework is developed for improving and embedding SCM in universities and other public sector and business organisations. The study concludes with practical and policy recommendations as well as directions for the future research work.





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