Climate Crisis: commitments and actions

Proposed approach for the period 2021-2030

Adopted by the College Council on 18 March 2021

The College’s headline manifesto on the climate crisis, adopted in 2019, says that we will:

  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero before 2050
  • achieve a steep reduction in scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions by 2030
  • support and co-operate with the University’s science-based target for carbon reduction and other sustainability initiatives

Addressing the climate emergency affects every element of our individual and collective lives. When faced with an enterprise as big and diverse as the College, with all its people, activities and operations, it can be hard to decide where to focus. And to some stakeholders, deciding to focus might sound like there are some climate impacts that we are choosing to ignore.

This is not the case. However, to achieve the scale of difference we seek with the urgency we attach to this, requires us to decide where our efforts will achieve the greatest return. Sometimes - and this is one of those times – achieving the greatest return means devoting our efforts to big, financially demanding and medium-term changes, rather than an annual focus on the next set of quick wins or incremental improvements.

We have already committed to science-based targets and measurement for our carbon emissions. In 2015, the College’s operations were emitting 3260 t CO2e in scope 1 and scope 2 emissions. We haven’t yet given a target for 2030. Setting a target will focus us on doing rather than discussing, it stops the best being the enemy of the good. It will flush out the complex inter-relationships of the decisions before us, and it will help us to identify an evidence-led programme for implementation.

Commitment 1: we will achieve a steep reduction in our scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions by 2030. This is an ambitious and stretching target. We will approve and pursue a plan, including a financial package, on this basis.

The next steps are to:

  • develop a nine-year plan including capital/revenue costs & benefits, and carbon reduction forecast to be developed, and to be formally adopted by Council
  • embed that plan into departmental plans and budgets

The College, with the championing of the Climate Crisis Committee, has made progress on several fronts, and from a more day-to-day operational perspective, our achievements in the Green Impact Awards give us confidence that these are going the right way. Because so much of our emissions are tied up in energy consumption, which is slower, lumpier and capital intensive to change, the annual incremental improvements that are recognised through the Green Impact are important signals of progress and commitment.

Commitment 2: we will target achieving Platinum status in the Green Impact Awards every year from 2021 to 2030.

Achieving this status – but more importantly, understanding what we can do to effect and accelerate change – demands better data. We are making decisions on imperfect analyses and we need to have a better evidence basis for competing options to change.

Action 1: we will develop and deliver an annual programme which sustains Platinum performance. This demands a commitment across all Departments and our College community, a commitment that is supported and championed by the Climate Crisis Committee.

Implementing this action will require:

  • the Sustainability Forum to develop and manage the delivery programme
  • the Climate Crisis Committee to monitor and support progress against the commitment

Action 2: we identify and collect meaningful and targeted data which underpins our action plan and award submissions. This data is scrutinised by the Climate Crisis Committee, and the Committee’s analysis is shared with relevant departments to inform future decisions.

Implementing this action will require:

  • the Climate Crisis Committee to work with college staff on the data requirements (quality not quantity)
  • data capture and analysis to be built into departmental plans and budgets
  • the Climate Crisis Committee annually to review what the data is telling us and to draw conclusions to help with further progress

Such year-on-year reductions in emissions are necessary but not sufficient to achieve our ambition. Two factors have most influence on our ability to reduce emissions by 2030. The first is the type of energy we are consuming. Unless we make a major change in the consumption of gas for heating, we cannot make enough of a difference. The second is the energy efficiency of our operations. Our operational estate is largely old and not energy efficient.

Commitment 3: to make the most progress within our target timeframe, we choose to focus our biggest efforts on reducing gas consumption and on energy efficiency in our operational estate.

There are four major drivers of this. First, overcoming the constraints on the supply of carbon neutral energy within our district. This creates a major limitation on our ability to switch out of high carbon energy sources. Securing a carbon neutral energy supply is essential if we are to reduce emissions across a large part of our main site. It is unlikely this will deliver by 2030, but success beyond this interim date is critically dependent on resolving this supply side problem. We won’t achieve the necessary overall reductions without making a start, now, on finding these solutions.

Action 3: we will research, promote and be prepared to invest in a district heating solution, or other renewable energy solution, to overcome this external constraint on our access to carbon neutral energy sources. We will progress this together with other Cambridge stakeholders.

Progressing this action requires:

  • expertise to be retained, both in house capacity to handle this and the external expertise to know what solutions might be available
  • ideally, joint working with other Colleges 
  • significant commitments to stakeholder management and engagement – city authorities, local community (in due course), utilities providers etc.

Second, reducing energy consumption in existing buildings. This is where the switch from gas heating is especially difficult for the College. As well as our historic main campus, across our operational estate we run a wide and varied portfolio of residential property. For some of the historic estate, the pursuit of increased supply of carbon neutral energy is the best solution (Action 3 above refers). For the rest, an ambitious programme to improve energy efficiency will help: measures such as better insulation, changing boilers, replacing windows, etc.

This is a complicated matter because the College is an active operational environment. These properties are occupied by students (undergraduates and postgraduates) and in some cases by Fellows.

A programme to refurbish them requires a good quality and deliverable decanting solution. It should avoid diminishing the student experience by relocating them significantly further from the College and, in any case, this would conflict with our strategic priority to reinforce the sense of community and collective living created by close proximity of student accommodation to the main campus. The impact of Covid-19 has reinforced this.

The College has a masterplan which proposes a new accommodation building on the current car park next to Cripps. The intention is to build a new block to PassivHaus standards, to enable the College to accommodate all undergraduates on the main site. Further, the College wants to offer all postgraduates, to the end of Year 3 of their PhD, College accommodation within easy reach of the main site; and would like to increase the amount of family accommodation we can offer also in central locations. If we get this right, and the College has the appetite and capacity to invest appropriately, then by 2030 we will have pursued an accommodation strategy that realises all these objectives and that has maximised our ability to invest in reducing emissions. Our approach will secure the pre-2030 carbon reduction and set a direction to deliver further reductions after 2030.

Action 4: we will complete short term pilot projects to establish the scope for reduced energy consumption in the range of target residential properties, and on the basis of these we will set benchmark standards for a rollout of the refurbishment programme.

Progressing this action requires:

  • alternative accommodation to be agreed for the headcount usually housed in the selected properties
  • pilot programme to be funded and delivered in 2021/22
  • analysis of impacts, ready to feed into the analysis of Action 5 below

Action 5: commission the expert energy and financial analysis which will allow us to model options for a decant/refurb/build/release programme to achieve affordable reductions in emissions from the off-site, operational, residential estate by 2030, whilst meeting the College’s accommodation strategy requirements

Progress on this action requires:

  • allocation of budget and a member of staff who will manage the tender process and ongoing engagement across the College
  • the Climate Crisis Committee to input to the scope of work, and to be represented on the steering group for this commission
  • the production of costed options, for a nine-year delivery timeframe, including capital/revenue costs & benefits, and carbon reduction forecast
  • a range of Committees to then consider and comment on these options before a Council decision on the strategic approach
  • after which, it is embedded in long term planning

Third, achieving exemplary zero-carbon standards for any new operational buildings. The College from time to time does have cause to build or to undertake redevelopment, in pursuit of our core purposes and to ensure long-term sustainability and stewardship of the institution. There are established methodologies for achieving zero carbon standards in new buildings and redevelopments, for scope 1 and scope 2 emissions, in relation to construction and operational energy consumption. Where we truly cannot achieve a zero-carbon outcome because of directives from external statutory authorities due to the heritage status of our estate, we will apply innovative alternative measures to offset unavoidable carbon impacts.

Action 6: we will apply to any new building or redevelopment of the College’s operational estate an appropriate nationally recognised framework, such as the UK Green Buildings Council’s net zero framework for building construction and for operational energy in new buildings

Progress here requires:

  • the Climate Crisis Committee to work with the Estates Strategy & Buildings Committees to advise on the right framework
  • Council to approve the commitment to a given framework
  • agreeing monitoring arrangements thereafter .

Fourth, addressing the energy impact of properties we release from operational use. Changes in the use of the College estate will see properties released from operations into the endowment portfolio. At this point, Operations secures ongoing zero carbon energy benefits, and hands over the ‘carbon problem’ to the endowment. But it isn’t enough to just release into the endowment these older properties. These are homes (or business spaces) that still contribute a carbon impact, they should meet our high energy efficiency standards. This will be for the benefit of each occupier, for the public good and at some point will also be in the College’s financial interests. Whilst this step does not in itself affect the College’s operational emissions, it is the right thing to do, and is in line with the commitments for our investment properties, as below.

Action 7: we will agree and implement energy efficiency standards to be achieved by properties being released from Operations, into the Endowment for on-going occupation or for redevelopment.

Progress here requires:

  • options for the energy efficiency standards to be developed (see Action 4 above) and agreed (a range of Committees would be involved before this is approved by Council)
  • explore the financial implications of discounting the price at which a property transfer if made from Operations to Endowment, and to consider whether the approach incentivises or disincentivises either from tackling problem cases
  • the Endowment to develop a forward look for properties currently in occupational portfolio and likely to transfer to the endowment

One other important area of opportunity in our operational activities is the use and reuse of water. Work on this is not so advanced and, as with renewables and zero carbon energy supply, there are significant infrastructure constraints in Cambridge. A water management approach on similar lines to the energy approach needs to be developed.

Action 8: we will commission analysis to understand the scope for improvement in water management for the operational activities of the College. On the basis of this, we will develop a costed plan to be integrated with the energy plan.

To progress this, we need to:

  • allocate budget and identify a member of staff to manage this tender process and ongoing engagement across the College
  • involve a range of Committees in considering and commenting on the findings before a strategy is proposed, tested and costed, and integrated with the wider plan (and, of course, securing all the usual approvals)

The College’s carbon emissions targets relate to the operational estate. St John’s also owns land and property in Cambridge and beyond, as part of the endowment property portfolio. In addition, the College endowment invests in equities and other securities.

The College’s endowment funds half the operational costs of the College, and it underpins the College’s ability to take out loans for capital investment, which we may need to accelerate our 6 operational progress towards net zero. Consideration of the carbon impact of the endowment is not so far advanced as for the operational estate and activities, bringing its own challenges.

Commitment 4: we will divest from all meaningful indirect investments in fossil fuel companies by 2030 (direct investments ceased in 2013).

Progress here requires:

  • the final definitions to support the policy to be proposed by the Investment Committee for approval by Council
  • the Investment Committee to implement the divestment plan and report on progress, noting that there is a critical dependency around the appointment of a new (external) investment adviser and building this into their mandate

Land and property in the College endowment is predominantly outside the full control of the College, because it is occupied by tenants and lessees. Only a small proportion of the emissions from the endowment property portfolio are directly addressable by the College. By ‘addressable’ carbon emissions, we mean that the College has limited opportunities to intervene or to control the carbon emissions resulting from the business activities of a legitimate independent occupier. Some of these emissions are being driven down by consumer and customer pressure, by government incentives and regulation, through the initiatives of occupiers themselves and through economic changes. It would be inappropriate for the College to ‘claim’ any such reductions in emissions.

For development land, the endowment has a clearer addressable opportunity to shape the carbon impact of a new development on College property.

Action 9: we will explore and recommend minimum development standards and benchmarks for the development of property in the College endowment, to make a further net zero commitment in this regard.

This requires:

  • suitable expertise to be retained, in professional teams for projects, to know what solutions might be available and evaluate their relative benefits
  • in-house capacity to focus on net zero initiatives across the endowment (as also identified in Action 10 below)

Opportunities to influence or intervene directly on the endowment’s ‘addressable’ carbon emissions most commonly arise when a ‘lease event’ occurs. A lease event means an expiry, renewal or a surrender of occupation by a tenant and potentially also periodic rent reviews. Leases on endowment properties range from the short term (3 to 7 years) through to 50+years. (There are ways of intervening during the course of a lease, but legal protections for tenants often make these changes (rightly) difficult to secure.)

We do not have data on the addressable carbon emissions, property by property (since utilities are almost invariably in the names of tenants and the College does not have access to the data), or their alignment with lease events. The College is taking the opportunity of lease events by seeking to introduce ‘green lease clauses’ under which the College and the occupier undertake specific responsibilities/obligations with regards to the sustainable operation/occupation of the property, for example: energy efficiency measures, waste reduction/management and water 7 efficiency, and the College obtains a right to obtain energy and water use data.

Where a lease is already in place, the College seeks to co-operate with tenants to improve the environmental performance of the property. Some of the College landholdings are farms and agricultural land. These properties may have opportunities to play a role as carbon sinks, or in other mitigating measures; they may even already be carbon negative contributors to the overall impacts. Carbon sequestration, and ‘farming carbon’ rather than food production, are all options but these require the College to be more directly involved in the land management than we are today.

The majority of farms are let and it is the tenant farmer and not the College that can influence and control carbon emissions/sequestration. Furthermore, a significant number of the agricultural leases are for very long periods of time, frequently multi-generational, and as a result they offer limited or very expensive surrender potential. However, the College seeks to engage with its agricultural tenants to understand and encourage their environmental improvement plans.

Action 10: we will collect data to help us to understand the baseline position on addressable carbon emissions, and on lease events over the period 2021-2050. These are first steps in identifying where the opportunities for action lie, whether at a lease event, or through influence or incentives.

Progress here requires:

  • in-house capacity to focus on climate change actions
  • the full engagement and deployment of the expertise of the College’s external advisers.