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In Conversation With: James Tiernan, Head of Sustainability

12 September 2023

Our goal is to lead on sustainability and raise standards in the living sector. We sat down with our Head of Sustainability James Tiernan, who leads our Sustainability Strategy, to discuss what’s changed since he joined us in 2012, what our focus is for the next year and how we’re creating places that deliver a positive impact for our people, our communities and the planet.


James Tiernan, Unite Students Head of Sustainability

James Tiernan, Unite Students Head of Sustainability

Q: How did you get into the world of sustainability?

A: Having served in the Army for 7 years, I had a career change in 2007, and having always been interested in renewable energy since learning about wind turbines in school I went back to Uni as a mature student to study a master’s degree in Sustainable Energy and Environment. I then worked for a few years as an energy and environmental consultant in the construction and real estate sectors, which gave me a great basis for Unite Students’ focus on developing new buildings and operating our existing estate.

Q: You joined Unite Students originally as an Energy and Environment Manager in 2012. What are some of the major sustainability challenges that you face working with purpose-built student accommodation, and how has this changed in the 11 years that you’ve worked for Unite?

A: Back in 2011, there was less of a focus on businesses being sustainable, and it wasn’t as much of an expectation for customers, universities or investors. Unite Students has always wanted to do the right thing and even in 2012 there was an acknowledgement that we should be doing more to reduce our environmental impact. Our largest source of carbon emissions today is the same as it was back then – the energy used in our buildings.  What has changed however is the importance that we place on reducing emissions now, our understanding of how we do that, and the level of investment we’re making in it.

The challenge is really the scale, and pace, of decarbonisation that is needed, especially when considering how we fit that around other work such as lifecycle maintenance and the day-to-day operations of our buildings.

Another significant challenge we still face is getting everyone to play their part and take ownership of things under their control that can have a sustainable impact – there are always so many other things for our employees and residents to think about, and we know it’s not always the easiest or most cost-effective option.

Q: In 2021, Unite Students announced a commitment to becoming a net-zero carbon organisation by 2030. How is progress towards that going, and what have been the biggest successes so far in meeting that target?  


A: This was a huge commitment for us and at the time of announcing it, we knew the challenges we faced in trying to achieve it – but we’re dedicated to overcoming those challenges to achieve the target.  


I think the biggest success story so far is that we’ve faced up to the challenge and committed to investing over £100m in energy, carbon and water reduction between now and 2030. This investment has driven down energy consumption per bed by 5.4% since 2019, helping deliver a 24.2% overall reduction in our operational carbon emissions over that same period.  This is a great start towards our 2030 target of a 28% reduction in energy consumption by 2030.

Q: One challenge for universities and accommodation providers is supporting sustainable behaviour change from students. What have you learned about supporting students to develop more sustainable habits, and what advice would you offer to other organisations in the same boat?

A: Getting anyone to change their behaviour is always really hard! We’re all human and don’t always do what we know we should, and students are no exception.  The best solution is to make the “right” behaviours easier than the “wrong” ones as people usually follow the path of least resistance. This is why we’re investing in things like smart heating controls, which can be an incredibly powerful tool for cutting energy use while also helping us manage our buildings much better and support the student experience.

We really need students to do to play their part too though, like understanding how these controls work for instance.  Our operations teams all have a key role to play in encouraging, engaging and occasionally challenging our students where they see behaviours that are not sustainable.

Q: The sustainability space is a really exciting one – what drives the passion and work that you and your team do?

A: We talked about this recently as a team, and unanimously the team are here to make a real positive difference – at risk of sounding a bit cliché, everyone in the team is genuinely passionate about what we do and I think we all feel an obligation to help make Unite Students a more environmentally and socially sustainable place. It helps that it’s also a great place to work with a really strong and positive purpose at its core.

Q: Name one thing that our staff and students can do to get started or continue their sustainability journey?

A: Take responsibility – we all have a part to play and the sum total of those parts is what drives real change.  You can start by just taking some time to think what you can do differently from day to day that will reduce your carbon footprint – The WWF carbon calculator is a great way to find out where you can make the most impact. Then make some small changes and slowly build them up into habits.  Using a refillable bottle instead of buying a new plastic bottle of water saves around 0.085kg of carbon per refill.  However, a 100g portion of beef has a carbon footprint of 15kg, about the same as driving from Bristol to Birmingham, while the same sized portion of chicken has a footprint of around 2kg of carbon.  So by switching from beef to chicken one day per week you can save over 650kg of carbon per year, about the same as a trans-Atlantic flight!

All these changes add up, so doing what you can, when you can, can make a real difference.

Q: And finally – What’s one thing you are proud of achieving with Unite Students?

A: It has to be the work that the team have done that’s got us to where we are right now. I’ve been lucky to work with some great colleagues over the last 10 years and to have a brilliant team in place right now – we wouldn’t be where we are in terms of our social impact or net zero carbon plans if it wasn’t for the hard work that has gone in from some really talented and passionate people.

Personally, it’s great to have been part of this right from the start, to see this whole agenda grow in importance and to be able to help ensure the business remains on the front foot

It’s great to see a company genuinely care about doing what’s right and I’m really proud that being a responsible and resilient business is one of our company wide strategic objectives which helps ensure sustainability is considered in absolutely everything we do.

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