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What has the pandemic taught us about achieving net zero?

18 April 2021

James Tiernan, Head of Sustainability at Unite Students, looks at the lessons that Higher Education can take from Covid-19 in achieving net zero carbon targets.

In order to deliver net zero carbon operations and new developments, as is our aim by 2030, it’s key for us to deliver as much decarbonisation as possible through energy efficiency improvements; whether that’s the building fabric, building services, or engaging with building users, both employees and students, to get them behaving in a way that reduces emissions. All of that is going to require a huge amount of change in a relatively short space of time – nine years to deliver huge business changes to meet our objective of net zero.

The last 18 months have seen unprecedented changes to all areas of life, so what can we learn from the Covid-19 pandemic that may be helpful when facing up to the threat of climate change?

18 months ago, if you looked at any risk register for a big organisation – whether it’s a university, a business, or a government – you’d probably have seen ‘global pandemic’ listed as one of the big significant risks, something with huge impact but perhaps low probability. In fact, the UK government’s 2017 National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies had ‘global pandemic’ listed, albeit a flu-based one, and projected deaths in tens to hundreds of thousands. It was clearly on people’s radars, but probably thought of as too unlikely to really worry about compared to more everyday concerns.

For many, climate change would have been viewed through the same lens: something that will cause significant impact, but which is too far down the line to think about – never quite as pressing as other day-to-day worries. However, the pandemic has shown that when big, disruptive events happen, it’s better if you’re prepared and have done everything you can to mitigate the impact. So, looking back at Unite Students’ experiences over the last year, I believe there are four lessons we can learn to help in the fight against climate change, and help us to achieve net zero.


Data and insight

In any crisis, there are difficult decisions to make, and often less information than people would want to make them on. For us, the pandemic highlighted how critical in-room occupancy data was, and this was a key bit of missing data. In a normal year, a student checks in at the start of the year, and they check out at the end of it. How they come and go during that time is up to them. There are times we need to know everyone’s out the building, like a fire alarm, but we provide our students with a home, and it is down to them when they come and go.

But nothing has been normal in the last year, and there have been numerous times when knowing how many people are in our buildings – and when – would have been invaluable: whether it’s reforecasting utility consumption, identifying empty rooms during lockdown that require enhanced water hygiene controls, or providing extra support to students in residence through lockdown.

Fortunately, 15 of our sites across the country have a networked heating control system called Prefect Irus. This system can sense in-room occupancy using a passive infra-red sensor, and turns the heating off when no-one is in the room, which saves energy and carbon. Importantly this system is networked, allowing us to access this data securely and providing a snapshot of how students were using buildings through lockdown, invaluable hard data on which to base decisions.

Data is key. Without data, you’re making decisions on instinct or anecdote, and while they could be right, they could also be fundamentally flawed. But also, data alone isn’t enough: you can’t just take data and expect a decision to fall out of it. You’ve got to understand the context, apply that, and then use the insight to develop actionable wisdom and outcomes from that data.


Pace of change

Over the last year, the pace of change has been frenetic. Many of the changes implemented in the last 12 months are things that business and organisations had previously put in the ‘too difficult for now’ pile, such as effective remotely working and moving to online systems. They’ve just been too expensive, too technically challenging, or too much of a break from the norm.

Yet how many of those miraculously happened within weeks when we really had to do it? In a lot of cases, that involved exploiting technology that was already there, and was all achievable within a short space of time when there was a priority and focus on achieving that change.

So, how do we maintain that same sense of urgency that we’ve had over the past 12 months which has allowed us to drive this pace of change, and apply it to the climate emergency? How do we keep up with the accelerating pace of change when it comes to technological development, new legislation, and increasing expectation? The pandemic has shown it that rapid change can happen – we just need learn to ride that wave.


People power

One of the barriers to engaging people on climate change is the perceived scale of the issue. It’s so daunting that it can disengage people – whereas the pandemic has forced people to face up to huge and difficult issues, which they can’t avoid.

A lot of people are already aware of the simple changes that we can all make to reduce emissions like travelling less, eating less meat or making sure our pensions are invested in sustainable funds. They can feel like small things, too small to make a difference, like we’re powerless to effect change. But the pandemic has really shown that we can make a difference as individuals.

Over the last year, it has been the hard work of medics, scientists and administrators that have helped to save lives and chart a path out of this situation, but fundamentally it has been the changes we’ve all made on a daily basis that are essential to get out of this situation as quickly as possible.

I think this has helped people to understand that the actions of individuals really have helped, and they really do matter, whether that’s in the fight against Covid or climate change. We will no doubt make use of big new technologies to achieve net zero and help combat climate change, but by implementing those personal changes, we can all meaningfully contribute towards the target that we’re all trying to achieve.

The challenge here is how we maintain that sense of urgency and priority around sustainable behaviour, living habits from students, and management practices among employees when there isn’t a pressing and clear danger like there is with Covid. It will be harder to maintain this when the risk is further down the line like it is with climate change.

But hopefully, people have seen that those actions can make a difference over the last year, and that will inspire people look at what they can do as individuals. And we can use this to engage our employees and students in the fight against climate change.


Making use of existing Net-Zero technologies

You have to be prepared – but be creative, work with what you’ve got, and be flexible. Clearly the rapid development of vaccines for Covid-19 are essential, but the science and technology that brought us those vaccines didn’t happen by accident: it’s the outcome of work that’s been going on for a long time. It has been accelerated, admittedly, by the focus that the pandemic has provided, but the vaccine programmes and technologies have been in development for a long time.

Many of the more mundane but equally important solutions have also been around for some time, waiting to be used. Zoom, for example, has been around since 2013 – but 18 months ago, many organisations hadn’t cracked effective video conferencing. It took a global pandemic to make us start using tools that were already there and change the way in which we are able to operate.

With climate change too, we will undoubtedly make use of exciting new technologies that haven’t even been invented yet, but we can’t pin our hope on those and expect some silver bullet that’s going to come along – we need to work with the tools and solutions we’ve got now. There’s a huge amount that we can do with the technology we have available.

The big question in the research we did last year prior to publishing our net zero carbon target was “How can we even get there?” Anyone who’s got a net zero carbon target will be quite happy to say they don’t know all the answers, but we have a relatively good idea of the energy efficiency improvements they can make right now using proven technologies.

And the encouraging part is that we can get quite a long way towards net zero with those technologies. Whether it’s solar photovoltaic systems, better heating controls, air source heat pump retrofits, or building fabric improvements, there are things we can do now that have a valid business case and can start delivering real and significant reductions in energy and carbon use.

There’s always something better around the corner, and we have to be flexible in adapting to new technologies as they become available – but we have to work with what we’ve got, and there are many solutions out there already. Ultimately, perfection is the energy of progress: if we wait for the perfect solutions to become available, it will be too late. We need to start now, with the insights and lessons we’ve taken from the last year, and get a move on in combatting climate change.

You can listen to James on our Accommodation Matters sustainability podcast below:

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