How the University estate is being transformed to meet net-zero targets

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Grant Ferguson, Director of Estates Net Zero and Carbon Leadership, and Scott Davidson, the University’s Deputy Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability, highlight recent developments to take the University towards Net Zero by 2040.

Over the past two years, the University’s department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability (SRS) has been developing a successor to the University’s current climate strategy.

The strategy has been developed primarily through five working groups involving 80 staff from across the University including Estates colleagues. In addition, hundreds of staff and students across the University’s five main campuses were consulted on what the new strategy should look like. The most frequent feedback has been to ensure the University’s estate reflects the step change in ambition within the proposed climate strategy successor.

Our net zero target means reducing the University’s emissions to as close to zero as possible by 2040, before offsetting whatever small residual is left over. The University is working towards our direct estate emissions being absolute zero or very close to zero by 2040. No offsetting is currently planned in regards to the estate, though is planned via the University’s Forests and Peatland programme to account for emissions from international student flights.

The programme to decarbonise the University’s estate is a vast, challenging and complex undertaking led by Grant Ferguson.

He says: “The University of Edinburgh estate is a challenge because of its size and complexity, the current energy strategy over the last 20 years has been sector-leading with our generation of power, heating and cooling in district and utility networks, but we need to transition away from using natural gas, reduce carbon emissions further and take all opportunities to reduce energy costs which are currently nearly £40 million each year.”

Laurence Winram

Creating low-carbon infrastructure

In terms of the existing 550 buildings within the estate, the University Energy Masterplan being developed by Estates aims to provide a long-term framework for coordinating investment in sustainable and resilient low-carbon buildings and infrastructure. The initiatives need to be scalable, and replicable, maximise long-term benefit but align affordability with the pace and scale of delivery required to achieve net zero objectives. This is a complex and unprecedented journey requiring innovation, collaboration, significant funding and a considered approach.

Given the big challenge with the masterplan/energy infrastructure net zero transition, energy reduction is seen as a very important part of the climate strategy and a key lever to reduce overall revenue costs.

Building on the previous work done over a number of years, the University has recently established a £17 million multiyear energy efficiency programme. In addition, £2 million of grant funding has been received this year from the Scottish Government’s £20 million fund for public sector bodies to employ clean heating and energy efficiency improvements and a further £13 million also secured from the Scottish Funding Council.

This recent funding allows the delivery of a range of project which form part of a programme of works required by 2040, focusing on the key themes of reducing energy demand, carbon, energy cost and enabling future transition to new net zero enabling technology. The range of projects currently underway includes:

  • Expanding the heating, power and cooling network at Easter Bush
  • Lighting efficiency replacement programme
  • Rooftop solar PV programme
  • Teviot Row energy efficiency improvements (adding to ongoing refurbishment)
  • Installation of a heat recovery heat pump at King’s Buildings which will supply some heat to the campus heat network
  • Upgrading roof insulation and glazing
  • Upgrading lab ventilation systems
  • Improved pipework insulation

“We’re also looking at how, when we build new buildings when these are required, we now look differently at how we build and what we build to ensure the carbon performance of the building is not just through its running but also the materials used to ensure if we do need to build it’s done in the best way,” Grant adds.

At Easter Bush campus the heating, power and cooling network will be expanded Liam Anderstrem

Grant says the University is also sharing knowledge across the city: “The University is assisting in the pledge to get the city of Edinburgh net-zero over time, but also bringing partners across the city with us. This involves Estates and academics taking knowledge and learning to the table so that everyone doesn’t need to do the same work and we can hopefully move forward quicker together.”

Estates are also collaborating with university researchers to look for opportunities for projects and opportunities to use the campuses as a living lab, to develop knowledge, innovation and opportunities in this increasingly important area.

Additionally, Estates is currently leading a review of space and working with colleagues across the University to explore opportunities recognising this could be a key lever for both carbon and cost savings. Damien Toner, Director of Estates, says: “Never has it been more important that we look to ensure the University is using the available space wisely and efficiently, an example being new ways of working providing opportunities for us to think differently and we must grasp these benefits where it makes sense to do so.”

The embedding of net zero, energy efficiency and wider sustainability behaviours across all University activities is also increasingly becoming vital, and the review of the 2016 University Climate Strategy will help inform how best to approach this. This work is being led by the Department of Social Responsibility and Sustainability and a coordinated campaign of initiatives to get the whole university community involved is planned during 2024.

Scott Davidson, the University’s Deputy Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability, says: “In our consultations with colleagues, we found worry about seeking funding for climate or nature-related research, teaching students on climate or nature, or in bringing partners, investors, or funders into an environment incongruent with that work.

“We teach our students to go and change the world, and we use our research to change it, so colleagues feel it’s important to work from an estate that embodies those values too. That’s why it’s great to see the work from estates in this area accelerating rapidly this year with building sustainability design standards etc. being referred to. It will take all of us working together collaboratively to achieve these goals. ”

There will be ongoing energy efficiency improvements at Teviot Row as part of refurbishment Paul Dodds

Find out more

If you would like to share further suggestions on how to make the University more sustainable, please email SRS at

Zero by 2040 | The University of Edinburgh

Climate action | The University of Edinburgh