Dr Rachael Rothman, Academic Lead for Sustainability and Co-Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield, discusses Sheffield’s journey towards net-zero.

In February, we announced that the University of Sheffield has joined the Race to Zero. This campaign, from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), looks to galvanise universities, businesses, cities and regions to mobilise resources to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

This follows our latest figures which show that the University has achieved a 47% cut in our on campus emissions since 2005/6, exceeding our targeted 43% reduction over the same period.  

At Sheffield, we understand that universities need to stand up to the scale of the climate emergency and that we cannot rest on our past successes. That is why in our sustainability strategy, published in November 2020, we committed to go faster than the Race to Zero. 

We have pledged to reach net-zero on campus by 2030 and become net-zero across all of our activities by 2038.  

Designing our targets

When we were writing our sustainability strategy, we brought some of our leading academics together to discuss what net-zero target we could achieve. In reviewing the scientific evidence, it was clear to us that a stretch target, one where we push ourselves beyond business as usual, was needed. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights the need to cut global emissions in half by 2030. They are clear: the next decade is key in making far reaching cuts to emissions if we are to have a good chance at holding global heating to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. 

As an institution committed to the public good, we believe that the University of Sheffield must help lead this transition. This is why we agreed that 2030 would be an ambitious but achievable target to become net-zero in terms of scope 1 and 2 emissions. 

Scope 1 and 2 emissions are those that an institution has control over, such as those produced directly on campus (scope 1), including on site energy generation or emissions released from the exhausts of our fleet vehicles, and those indirect emissions from our purchased electricity (scope 2). 

We know, however, that we must go further still. A university’s other indirect emissions (scope 3), such as those from construction, procurement, food and travel, are often far greater than those associated with scope 1 and 2. They are also more difficult for a university to tackle as they are difficult to accurately measure and we have less direct control over them. 

In this light, we have given ourselves more time to work through the complexities of reaching net-zero scope 3 emissions. We are aiming to be carbon neutral across all activities by 2038. This is the target date highlighted by the 2019 Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research report for the city of Sheffield, if it is to fulfill its fair share of emissions reductions under the Paris Agreement.  

Carbon offsetting  

As Academic Lead for Sustainability at the University of Sheffield, I am always looking to work with others from across the sector to create innovative solutions to help us reach our sustainability targets. 

Over the past year, I have been part of a group of academics, including colleagues from the University of Oxford, University of Leeds and London School of Economics, looking at carbon offsetting as a tool to help universities to reach net-zero

Our report is clear: offsetting cannot take the place of real emissions cuts. But universities like Sheffield, with an international focus and research (and therefore carbon)-heavy activities, will always have some emissions associated with our operations, at least with current technology. Carbon offsetting will play a role in our path towards carbon neutrality but our first focus must be on making real emissions cuts on our journey towards net-zero. 

We are already making progress. For example, last year we acted decisively to take advantage of the changes in the energy market due to the coronavirus pandemic, to sign new electricity contracts with a 100% renewable electricity supplier, dramatically reducing our scope 2 emissions. We are also in the process of replacing our fleet with electric vehicles. You can see the many other actions we are undertaking in our Sustainability Action Plan.

Our sustainability strategy sets out our ambitions to become “one of the most sustainable research-intensive universities in the country”. We have set our targets and are getting on with the work  to achieve them in a way that embodies the ambitious, holistic and pragmatic approach to sustainability that staff and students at Sheffield expect. It is an exciting journey and it is fantastic to have the input and support of so many enthusiastic staff and students.