How sustainable is Durham?

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As COP26 draws to a close, Palatinate looks at how sustainable Durham is in terms of four main themes: carbon emissions, waste, investments, and generation of renewable energy.

Carbon Emissions

University carbon emissions reduced from 30,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2015-16 to under 23,000 in 2020-21. Most of the reduction is in emissions linked to electricity consumption, which halved from 2005-6 and 2019-20. On top of this, since April of this year, 100% of the University’s electricity supply has come from renewables.

The University has also effectively eliminated its use of oil, although its gas usage, which accounts for half of its emissions, was only slightly lower in 2019-20 than in 2016-17.

However, the University website states that, due to University expansion in the ‘Estates Masterplan’, energy consumption will likely rise until 2027. It says that it will compensate for this with a new Carbon Management Plan. The previous plan, from 2014-2020, included replacement of old equipment with low-energy alternatives, use of renewables, and reduction in business travel which accounts for 12% of the University’s emissions

Waste

Investments

Since July 2018, the University has had no direct investments in companies involved in the extraction of fossil fuels. However, this does not preclude investment in such companies via intermediaries such as banks.

Data obtained by Freedom of Information request shows that the University has £5.2m worth of investments in the 10 banks providing the most finance to fossil fuels, as classified by Rainforest Action Network. More than £2.9m of this is invested in JPMorgan, which has invested by far the highest amount in the industry: more than £200bn between 2016 and 2020.

The University’s Ethical Investment Policy states that it “has committed to sustainable investment by positively supporting investments in sustainable companies and through establishing restrictions on some types of investments.”

Durham also has almost half a million invested in Unilever PLC, which was listed by Break Free From Plastic as one of the top ten global plastic polluters in 2020. Similarly, a Palatinate investigation revealed investments worth £2.1m in Amazon, which has come under fire in recent years for its environmental record.

Conversely, the University has over £200k in a TFL Green Bond, and almost £1m worth of investments in Orsted, the world's largest developer of offshore wind power.

Durham’s investments are in the form of bonds or shares which are bought, adding them to the University's investment portfolio. Banks such as JPMorgan use the money raised from selling these to invest, including in companies extracting fossil fuels.

100% of the University's electricity supply comes from renewables

The University told Palatinate: “Since July 2018, the University has had no investments in companies involved in the extraction of fossil fuels. We took the decision to withdraw investments from such companies following a full consultation with our staff, students and alumni – the Durham University Commission on Divestment from Companies Involved in Fossil Fuel Extraction.”

This decision followed in the footsteps of 61 UK Universities that had previously made similar promises, and was made following a year-long consultation with staff and students, four-fifths of whom were found to support divestment.

Renewables

An important part of the University’s Carbon Management strategy has been the instalment, and increased use of, on-site renewables. 20 buildings, including the Palatine Centre and Maths and Computer Science Building, now have onsite renewables or low-carbon systems of some kind, of an estate of more than 300 buildings.

In the 2020-21 academic year, 300,000 kWh were produced by the University’s onsite renewables, compared to 240,000 in 2015-16. For context, the electricity use of the Bill Bryson Library in a year is more than 800,000 kWh, and this does not include gas.

As a comparison with other Universities, Durham is 22nd in England for its total renewable energy generated.

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