Deep Dive: How Universities Take Climate Action

The rise of Fridays for Future and other global climate strikes have seen large numbers of youth from around the world pouring in to demand climate action. University students are calling for the reform of curriculums to address the climate crisis and many are expressing opposition against their universities collaborating with unsustainable companies.

Young people—as evidenced by the climate strikes—are very passionate about climate change. Logically, they, therefore, expect their institutions and employers to be as well. If universities want to attract top students, they need to take strong and committed steps on climate action.

As we see today, universities have the ability to impact climate change in several ways. Firstly, their own carbon footprints can be substantial, with buildings and commuting being two of the major contributors to their emissions. Secondly, educational institutions are in a unique position to empower and embolden their students to help tackle the climate emergency. They can contribute to the achievement of the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals, specifically SDG Target 4.7, which reads:

“by 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”

In The Netherlands, most universities have already made commitments to pursue efforts to limit their emissions. Some Dutch universities have also been expanding their curriculum by integrating sustainability in their teaching and research. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged universities in immense and unexpected ways.

The crisis has brought about the need to implement significant changes in teaching methods to avoid contagion. It has forced students to attend university in the confines of their home and revealed stark inequalities in educational experiences.

Despite many challenges, opportunities are also presented to enhance learning experiences and reduce institutions’ carbon footprint. With universities switching to remote learning platforms resulting in decreased commuting, carbon emissions have likely decreased. Nevertheless, universities will need to develop and adjust their sustainability measures. At the same time, they need to ensure that students receive an education that will help them tackle the challenges of this rapidly changing world.

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to highlight the impact that Dutch universities have on global carbon emissions. Additionally, we evaluate whether these educational institutions are indeed taking concrete measures to combat climate change. Not only is reducing your carbon footprint important, today more than ever. Setting the right example for students and living up to their expectations has become increasingly essential.


Comparing university carbon footprints


We have evaluated a sample of 13 Dutch universities on their climate action commitments. In this sample, all universities report on sustainability, but the depth and quality of reporting vary. Here, an interesting way to evaluate environmental impact is looking at and comparing the day-to-day activities which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

The GHG Protocol Corporate Standard classifies emissions into three scopes: direct, indirect, and other indirect emissions. Taking this standard as a framework, universities can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in three ways:

  • Scope 1 – Direct emissions from within the university. Such as fuel and gas combustion from heating buildings, leakage of refrigerants, driving of university-owned vehicles, and emissions from livestock and agricultural land.
  • Scope 2 – Indirect emissions from purchased energy such as electricity, heat, or steam.
  • Scope 3. Other indirect emissions such as employee and student commuting, business travel, catering, and waste.

The following graphs depict the 6 universities which clearly report where their emissions come from. As can be seen, Wageningen and Utrecht University’s main source of emissions come from its direct operations. Wth 51% and 58% of emissions coming from scope 1, respectively.


Wageningen University’s emissions come from buildings and possession of agricultural land. Livestock emissions are a big determinant of Wageningen’s emissions. While Utrecht’s most CO2 intensive activity is natural gas consumption from buildings.

On the other hand, the University of Twente and Eindhoven University of Technology’s CO2 emissions mostly come from scope 2. This is due to their more intensive electricity consumption. Finally, Erasmus University and the University of Groningen’s biggest emissions come from scope 3. This is mostly due to business travel and commuting of students and employees.

All in all, there are several main ways universities generate CO2 emissions:

    • Fuel use from university-owned vehicles;
    • Natural gas for heating;
    • Energy consumption from buildings.
    • Business travel and commuting (both students and employees).

Other less CO2 intensive but still significant sources of emissions include:

    • Waste production (water, paper, food, etc)
    • Catering (food and beverages, especially meat consumption on campus).


Climate pledges by universities


Whether due to pressure from students or from intrinsic motivation, universities have been ramping up their efforts to become more sustainable. Most Dutch universities have committed themselves to climate pledges.

In our own beloved city of Rotterdam, Erasmus University has joined the Rotterdam Climate Initiative. This initiative aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% by 2025 compared to 1990. Additionally, the university has pledged to become Carbon Neutral by 2024. Other Dutch universities have also communicated similar pledges; the Delft University of Technology, University of Twente, and Utrecht University all plan on being Carbon Neutral by 2030.

Energy efficiency has been a big focus in achieving this. For example, the University of Amsterdam pledged to improve its energy efficiency by 20% by 2020 relative to 2005. Another interesting trend has been the increased uptake of renewable energy by universities.

The University of Groningen pledged that at least 25% of its energy use will come from its own renewable sources as of 2020. Utrecht University pledged to generate 100% of its energy from local and renewable sources by 2030. One pledge that stood out from the others was Eindhoven University’s pledge to become a waste-free university by 2030. 

It is clear that universities are making concrete and tangible efforts towards climate action. But, what are the essential and most efficient courses of action? And what can universities do to level up their sustainability game?


Best practices for reducing emissions


Solutions include tackling the most CO2 intensive emissions activities and using the power of education to leverage sustainable innovation.  

– Energy efficiency efforts

Some universities offset their emissions by means of carbon credits. Both Erasmus University and University of Groningen do this through the purchase of GOO (Guarantee of origin) certificates. These ensure that energy generated comes from renewable sources. Maastricht University, on the other hand, compensates its natural gas consumption through the purchase of Gold Standard-certified carbon credits.

While this method of reducing their footprint is among the most common. Generating their own clean electricity is a more effective and credible course of action. For instance, University of Groningen produces its own renewable energy through wind and solar power. Furthermore, they developed and installed energy storage systems.

As seen previously, the energy consumption of buildings is a large contributor to total carbon emissions. A way to improve the environmental performance of buildings is to get BREEAM certified to ensure energy efficiency in building infrastructure. BREEAM is the world’s leading assessment method for infrastructure and buildings. The certification ensures that environmental standards are maintained across various environmental categories.

Eindhoven University, with its Atlas building, has managed to reduce CO2 emissions by 80%. Thanks to its highly insulating glass façade, non-reliance on fossil fuel and highly efficient thermal energy storage. As such, the building received the award for being the most sustainable educational building in the world in 2019 from BREEAM.

– Ties with governmental climate change efforts

To reinforce regional climate action efforts, some universities take part in government-led initiatives. For instance, by being part of the Rotterdam Climate Initiative, Erasmus University commits to alleviate its city’s CO2 emissions through research and innovation. Similarly, The University of Amsterdam collaborates with the local government on several projects to advance the city’s energy transition.

Recent innovative efforts include co-creating an underground heat and cold storage system. By doing so it reduces emissions for the university and its wider urban surroundings. TU Delft also takes part in the collaborative movement by joining various regional projects such as the Green Village. This initiative aims to accelerate sustainable innovation on topics like circularity, energy efficiency and water usage. 

– Overcoming the challenge of travel

This article has made it clear: business travel and commuting to university are strong CO2 emissions contributors in the educational sphere. To reduce this impact, institutions act in several ways. In 2019, Dutch universities co-signed an open letter to take action around scholar flights. They vowed to push for tighter policies around business travel.

Close to 1,200 university members signed this letter and called for drastic measures in flight traffic through behavioural change. For instance, a ban was called for flights under 500km. As well as the reduction of mobility around conferences and other global educational events. 

For the youth to understand how sustainability works in different contexts, however, diverse perspectives are necessary. Having academics from different parts of the world is crucial for this. Online education can be a solution, as has become the new reality during the current global pandemic.

– Incorporating sustainability courses into the curiculum

This seems rather obvious, but universities’ main goal is to educate their students. With the recent rise of climate urgency, more and more universities are including sustainability courses in their curriculums. Educating students and motivating them to become a force for sustainable change represents an essential part of climate action responsibility.

This has been reinforced by a growing body of research. The evidence suggests that students demand their institutions to be responsible. And that entry level employees are increasingly considering sustainability in their career decisions.

To date, practically all Dutch universities offer sustainability courses. Among Dutch institutions, Wageningen University and Utrecht university are highly recognised for the quality of their sustainability education.  


Final thoughts


Are Dutch universities practising what they preach? In most cases, it would seem so, but there is always much more that can be done. Improvements on carbon emissions reporting, and further action on the energy transition are vital in order to live up to their climate pledges.

Greater collaborations with civil society, research, and innovation are also crucial to reach carbon neutrality. This is true whether on a university, regional, or global level.

Finally, as distributors of knowledge, universities should leverage their resources. The goal should be to equip current and future generations with tools for climate action. Thereby weaving sustainability into their fabric.