How to decarbonise a university

Portrait shot of Tom Yearly, Estates Services


We’re on track to take this enormous, complex organisation to net zero by 2035 – a ground breaking achievement for everyone to be proud of.



We’re committed to reach net zero carbon by 2035. Can we do it?

Yes, of course we can. We can get to net zero tomorrow, the challenge for the University is to do so in an effective and transparent manner. We have identified a pathway to achieve this and we’re confident it will be delivered.

How do you go about decarbonising such a large, complex organisation?

It’s a huge challenge. There are four main elements to our scheme: energy efficiency, decarbonising our heat sources by replacing gas with electric heating, setting best practice standards for new and refurbished buildings and after we have made as many reductions as possible, offsetting.

One of the areas we’re focusing on currently is improving energy efficiency. We can meet our needs with much less energy, but we need to invest in infrastructure and technologies – spending now to save later.

A good example of a quick win is draught-proofing. Many of our buildings are listed, so we can’t always implement the changes we want to. One relatively cheap thing we can do is stop draughts, and it turns out that can go a long way. We’ve had a lot of success installing specially designed seals around doors and windows in historic buildings like the Old Bodleian. We’re now rolling these out across the estate.

One of our targets is to cut carbon emissions from electricity and heating by 75%. Can we do this just by installing technology?

We reduced gas and electricity consumption by over 10% between August and October 2022 primarily through behavioural change and the Be Energy Friendly winter efficiency campaign. Of course, we can make these reductions, and they will be achieved through a range of approaches, including technology.

Moving forward, we’ve created a sustainable design guide for major capital projects and will publish another on smaller refurbishments soon. These set out the standards our designers and builders have to meet, which are higher than what building regulations require but these will pay off over time in reduced carbon emissions and reduced energy costs.

One of our biggest challenges right now is moving from gas boilers which we use to heat most of our estates, to electricity-based heating. 

Switching to electric systems like heat pumps doesn’t only reduce our emissions now; it will do even more in future as the UK power grid moves away from fossil fuels and towards renewables. Our new buildings are already electricity based. We already buy all our electricity from renewable sources, by moving more of our energy need to be electricity based, we can reduce our carbon further.  

Why aren’t we already offsetting our emissions?

Our top priority is doing everything we can to reduce emissions – we’ll only use offsetting from 2030. Any offsets that we do purchase are likely to focus on removing carbon from the atmosphere rather than preventing it from being released. Although it’s better to avoid environment damage than to try to undo it, we have to be honest about the scale of emissions in the past, and yet to be released, and develop a robust plan to clean up after ourselves.

However, you have to remember that we can’t directly control most of our emissions. They are Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions, arising from the goods and services we buy – from electricity to office supplies to lab equipment, from food to flights. We can make educated choices when purchasing and try to influence our suppliers, but ultimately, we can only buy what’s on the market. There’s no way our whole supply chain will reach zero carbon by 2035, and that’s one reason we’ll need to offset to achieve net zero.

How does it feel to do this work?

Fascinating and challenging! The University setting is not easy and making changes can take a long time. It can be frustrating sometimes, but it’s also incredibly satisfying. We’re already accomplishing a huge amount, and we’re on track to take this enormous, complex organisation to net zero by 2035 – a ground breaking achievement for everyone to be proud of.

Want to find out more?

During Green Action Week, Tom will lead a Behind the Scenes tour to visit the Earth Science and Dyson Perrins Buildings in the science area. You will hear about the  University's approach to reducing carbon emissions from University buildings, learn about the University's energy efficiency projects and see examples implemented in those buildings.

View the full Green Action Week events programme