Imperial’s Sustainability Strategy: What does it cover and what are the challenges ahead?

The secret garden and bee hives in autumn at the South Kensington campus
The secret garden and bee hives in autumn at the South Kensington campus (c) Thomas Angus, Imperial College London

Imperial College London has just published its first ever Sustainability Strategy, which includes a target to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040 at the latest. In this blog, Dr Neil Jennings, Professor Joanna Haigh, Dan Hdidouan, Professor Geoff Maitland and Alyssa Gilbert, members of the Greening Imperial initiative that has been calling for Imperial to improve its performance on sustainability for a number of years, reflect on the details of the strategy and the challenges that lie ahead. Dr Jennings represents Greening Imperial on the Sustainability Strategy Advisory Group.

How we got here

Back in 2017, exasperated by a lack of progress on sustainability, a group of professional staff, academics and students from across College came together to form Greening Imperial. This initiative was aimed at understanding and improving how the College implemented sustainability and climate action. We saw that Imperial was lagging behind our peers, and that significant demand existed amongst students and staff for the College to improve its ethical and environmental policies, practices and performance.

This demand was evident in a student and staff survey we conducted in 2017, which provided the foundation of our report ‘Greening Imperial – A call to action’. The report set out three key recommendations that would achieve a step-change in Imperial’s public and professional reputation on sustainability: to appoint a senior member of staff responsible for sustainability, to set meaningful sustainability targets and to engage the Imperial community and its networks to deliver these targets.

Following the appointment of Professor Paul Lickiss as Academic Leader for Sustainability in November 2019, the publication of the 5-year Sustainability Strategy means that our first two recommendations have been acted upon. This is a significant step forward, but of course achieving the associated targets will not be easy. So, what are some of the targets and what will this mean for life at Imperial?

What’s in store

The target to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040 includes scope 1 and 2 emissions – these relate to our direct emissions from the use of fuels such as gas and oil (scope 1) and our indirect emissions from the electricity that we buy into our campuses (scope 2). To cut these emissions we can expect to see improvements in the energy efficiency of our buildings, microgeneration (e.g. installing solar panels) and a continued commitment to buy our electricity from renewable sources. Importantly, the strategy will develop a roadmap for our new White City South campus to be carbon neutral. These commitments should provide an exciting opportunity to apply our research to the everyday operations of the College so our campuses can become ‘living labs’.

The greatest share of our carbon footprint, however, comes from scope 3 emissions – an estimated 75% of our total in 2017/18. These are indirect emissions from activities of the College and occur from sources that we do not directly own (e.g. from aviation, procurement or construction). Disappointingly, the net zero target doesn’t currently include these emissions. This is because, historically, the College hasn’t invested enough in sustainability, which means there is insufficient data to fully understand the size and nature of these emissions. One of the first actions highlighted in the strategy is to set science-based targets. Such targets include scope 3 emissions and can be produced once the gaps in data are filled. This is key to ensuring that the full climate impact of the college is considered. It will provide more detail on our trajectory to achieving net zero, and will allow us to show our commitment on the international level by becoming a signatory of the United Nations’ Race to Zero campaign.

While the gaps in data are filled, it is encouraging that the strategy already includes targets to tackle particular parts of our scope 3 emissions, including reducing aviation emissions by 25% per person by 2026. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to get our research done without the need to fly around the world, so it seems like an appropriate time to tackle this challenging area of our emissions. The strategy also includes important commitments to improve biodiversity on our campuses, to increase the amount of green space, to reduce the amount of meat used in college catering and to integrate sustainability into the curriculum.

Enacting the strategy should help to strengthen our community – both within the university and with our local neighbours. It will bring together networks of staff and student sustainability champions to share ideas and experiences, and will facilitate engagement with our neighbouring schools, community groups and councils as we all try to rapidly improve our environmental impact.

Staff and students working on the allotment at Imperial's South Kensington Campus
Staff and students working on the allotment at Imperial’s South Kensington Campus (c) Neil Jennings

The road ahead

We enthusiastically welcome the Sustainability Strategy and the way in which it looks to embed sustainability into heart of the university – from research and education to operations and engagement. But we must also recognise the challenges that lie ahead and that there is no room for complacency. The College must devote sufficient resource to bring the strategy into reality – staff to manage a sustainability champions network, for example, investments in low-carbon infrastructure and micro-grants to enable staff and students to take local action. The College has left it late, but the Imperial community is ready and waiting to take up the sustainability baton. We are confident that, as a committed and responsible community, we will not neglect our responsibility to act if the College provides us with the opportunity and resources to do so. We hope the new sustainability strategy will herald the start of that process.

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