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University of Cambridge pledges to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2048

The University of Cambridge has adopted science-based targets for carbon reduction and pledged to reduce emissions to zero by 2048.

It aspires to be 10 years ahead of its decarbonisation pathway at all times - meaning it could achieve zero carbon status by 2038.

Senate House, Cambridge (14476537)
Senate House, Cambridge (14476537)

Cambridge is the first university in the world to announce a ‘1.5 degrees’ target, based on goals set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit the rise in global temperatures.

The international agreement, a response to the threats posed by climate change, set out the need to keep the increase in global average temperatures this century to well below two degrees Celsius, and ideally to 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels.

The university’s targets indicate how much and how quickly it needs to reduce emissions to ensure it is fulfilling its role in achieving this according to the latest climate science.

Professor Ian Leslie, senior adviser to the vice-chancellor with special responsibility for environmental sustainability, said: “Scientists have made it clear that we need to take urgent action to prevent potentially catastrophic climate change.

“As a world-leading university, we need to not only take responsibility for our own carbon emissions, but also to demonstrate to others what is achievable. By setting an ambitious target for carbon reduction and aiming to reach it a decade early, we hope to provide opportunities for others to learn from our approach, including where we are successful and areas that are found to be challenging.”

Science-based targets are based on independently developed models. Cambridge’s is focused on targets relating to scope one emissions - direct emissions from owned or controlled sources - and scope two emissions, which are indirect, from the generation of purchased energy.

Emily Shuckburgh, British Antarctic Survey. (14476800)
Emily Shuckburgh, British Antarctic Survey. (14476800)

Dr Emily Shuckburgh, director of research on carbon neutrality at the University of Cambridge, leads the Cambridge Carbon Neutral Futures Initiative, due to launch in the autumn.

She said: “The important point about science-based targets is that they are not arbitrary, but rather are robust and evidence-based.

“Achieving our commitment will undoubtedly be challenging, but it is a challenge we have a duty to meet. We encourage other universities and institutions to consider adopting similar commitments.”

The commitment relates initially to its operational estate, meaning those buildings and assets directly supporting its teaching and research activities.

But it is developing science-based targets for its wider estate and activities over the next three years. It has already begun work to:

  • Look at options to reduce significantly the amount of gas it uses for space and water heating
  • assess the feasibility of developing a solar farm on university land;
  • source electricity from zero carbon sources; and
  • Implement energy-efficiency improvements across its estate.

And it ensuring carbon is a key consideration as any new buildings are developed.

The university is also exploring how its departments could be provided with better data on their energy use and carbon emissions, so staff and students can act

And it has committed to developing targets and initiatives for reducing its indirect - scope three - carbon emissions, such as from its supply chain and business travel.

The models and data are based on those developed by the Science Based Targets Initiative and the International Energy Agency.

Companies adopting their own science-based targets can have them validated by the initiative.

The service is not yet available to the higher education sector, but Cambridge has developed its target in consultation with a member of the initiative’s technical advisory group.

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