The Centre of Climate Smart Future, which was established early this year, has been tasked with making TalTech climate neutral by 2035. Figuring out how to achieve this has been the primary challenge of the centre’s first year. What is the University’s current CO2 footprint and what are the best, biggest or fastest ways to reduce it? In order not to reinvent the entire wheel ourselves, we also want to know how other universities have dealt with climate challenges and what we can learn from them.
Despite the otherwise sweltering days, it was pouring with cold rain when the delegation of TalTech’s Centre of Climate Smart Future arrived in Aarhus. People who argue against climate change use moments like these to claim that global warming does not exist. However, both researchers and the planet’s average temperatures firmly attest to continuously warmer years. So, we pulled our jackets tighter around us and went to look for our hotel in the rain in order to learn over the next few days how the local university approaches climate smartness.
The Centre of Climate Smart Future, which was established early this year, has been tasked with making TalTech climate neutral by 2035. Figuring out how to achieve this has been the primary challenge of the centre’s first year. What is the university’s current CO2 footprint and what are the best, biggest or fastest ways to reduce it? Where can we install solar panels and how many? What is the biodiversity like on the 55 hectares of our campus and to what extent can we reduce parking spaces in order to increase it? What can we use to replace disposable dishes on campus? How can we motivate the school body to move around on foot, by bicycle or use public transport? What is the most accurate way to measure their transportation use for the footprint? In order not to reinvent the entire wheel ourselves, we also want to know how other universities have dealt with climate challenges and what we can learn from them.
Over the summer, we went on study trips to Wageningen University (WUR) in the Netherlands and Aarhus University (AU) in Denmark. Ranked as the world’s greenest university (according to the UI Green Metric), WUR is focused on agriculture and technology and all the curricula are strongly interlinked with sustainability. As such, its students are greener than average from the very beginning of their studies. The university measures its CO2 footprint and knows that it was 50% smaller in 2019 than in 2010. Climate discussions in Aarhus began in 2018 as a result of the demands of its researchers and students, and the university’s current operations are based on a climate strategy for 2020-2025. The university’s goal is to achieve climate neutrality by 2040.
The greatest change: from autopilot to conscious choice
We visited both destinations by plane, which is currently inevitable when travelling from Estonia, as there are no high-speed trains running from here to Western Europe. According to Google Flights, the environmental cost of our 220-minute flight to Denmark, including a stopover, was 111 kg of CO2, plus a bus ride from Billund airport to Aarhus. By land, the trip would have taken nearly 30 hours, but the CO2 price of the trip by land is not (yet?) available on Google.
Recommendations for international assignments for university staff is something that both universities have done – instead of automatically buying airline tickets, they first look for opportunities to travel by land. The principle is that flying is unnecessary if it is possible to reach the destination by land in up to eight hours.
Such autopilot choices are at the centre of climate strategies. Travelling does not automatically have to mean flying. Commuting to work does not automatically have to be by car. Lunch does not automatically have to include meat and landscaping can be so much more than grass cut short. Even just reconsidering our daily activities, thinking about what is better or necessary and being conscious is enough to result in less carbon-intensive choices.
For example, on the WUR campus and throughout the town of Wageningen, the grass is cut only twice a year, which is considered necessary in terms of biodiversity. Grass is only kept short in roadside areas where it may limit visibility.
Unlike here, catering choices at Aarhus University are set up so that when registering for a conference, you need to include a note that you want your lunch to have meat. Eating meat is not prohibited, but it leads to a slight change in the way people think about so-called regular food and whether it is with or without meat. In the buffet-type restaurants of WUR, healthier food is placed within reach, less healthy options are further away and meat is in a separate area – again, all options are available, but the default food is now healthy and plant-based.
However, vegetarian members of the green team admitted that the caterers are not yet very good at preparing plant-based dishes and the selection is often unbalanced, boring or even bland. Aarhus, however, has undertaken to train caterers to make the food truly tasty and nutritious and has organised vegetarian food events for people to try it out. We can only praise the result, as we ate the vegetarian dishes served on campus for lunch and it was really delicious, nutritious and varied.
The greatest challenge: procurement
However, even the world’s greenest university has challenges and room for improvement. For example, WUR still uses a lot of natural gas, the campus has many car parks and the coffee machines in the university’s main building still use plastic cups, although rental cups are also used and disposable paper cups are recycled into toilet paper.
Bicycling has been the standard urban transport in both Denmark and the Netherlands for many years and the countries have great infrastructure and a considerate traffic culture. As such, the proportion of bicycle users there is incomparable with Tallinn. We used local rental scooters ourselves a few times, enjoying the bicycle paths available everywhere. However, even over there, there is an issue with the lack of washing facilities for people coming from farther places and there, too, campaigns are carried out, calling for people to bike to the university or, when commuting from places further away, to carpool. Parking on the Aarhus campus is only permitted for staff and the university is in the process of replacing their fleet with electric vehicles. Both universities are also reducing the number of staff parking spaces.
The CO2 footprint is measured in three aspects: emissions produced on-site, consumed energy that is produced elsewhere and procurement. Right now, this part is still the most unclear and difficult to measure, not only in terms of the carbon footprint of universities, but also all of us as a whole, because how do you calculate the burden of a purchased pen, sweatshirt, banana or bicycle on the planet? There is no doubt that goods left unpurchased have the smallest burden, but if a purchase is necessary, it has to be done wisely. Preparation of environmentally smart procurement conditions is a challenge that many responsible organisations are currently facing.
Research and crowdfunding make their contribution
Between 2020 and 2021, a geothermal heating system with 18 wells was built at a depth of 90 metres at WUR, which has significantly helped to reduce the carbon footprint of the university. The goal is to save 1.3 million m3 of natural gas per year, which is equivalent to 2400 tonnes of CO2. The university only purchases green energy and WUR also has its own wind farm, selling green energy to the country’s power grid.
Aarhus University is the home of the Novo Nordisk Foundation CO2 Research Center, whose purpose is to capture colossal amounts of CO2 from the environment. We can talk about reducing carbon emissions, but it is not enough, as way too much carbon has already been released and it has to be captured. The research team includes nanotechnologists, microbiologists, organic chemists and system modellers from six partner universities from all over Europe. The centre, which operates as a research and education facility as well as a think-tank, predicts that, in 20 years, companies will be buying the service of carbon capture from other companies. The business plan of Aarhus is to sell the necessary knowledge.
Another remarkable initiative in Aarhus is the crowdfunded solar farm installed on campus buildings: students and staff can buy shares in the solar farm and will receive dividends from the sale of produced electricity. Right now, it is common that communities living near solar fields have nothing to do with the green energy produced there, but participants in the Aurora project can consume the energy produced on-site. And that is not all: as the university reduces its carbon footprint by purchasing electricity from the energy cooperative operating on campus, investors are making a profit. Meanwhile, behavioural psychologists are studying how being an owner of a power plant changes one’s energy behaviour. People are also encouraged to consume more sustainably via a mobile app, resulting in nearly zero-energy citizens.
A zero-energy university is what we at TalTech are also striving towards. The Centre of Climate Smart Future will continue to maintain its close relationships with partners in Estonia and abroad in order to find exciting collaborative projects and learn from the experience of others. The next study trip will take us to Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology (LUT) in Finland, which is aiming for climate neutrality by 2024.
The study trips took place thanks to the Erasmus+ Mobility grant funded by the European Union.