Carbon footprinting of universities worldwide: Part I—objective comparison by standardized metrics

Nanyang Technological University, Trier University of Applied Sciences

Publication Release Date: March 11, 2021
Date Posted: May 4, 2021
Submitted by: Tessie Devlin
Content Type: Publications
Publisher: Springer Nature
Periodical Name: Environmental Sciences Europe
Type: Journal Article


Background Universities, as innovation drivers in science and technology worldwide, should be leading the Great Transformation towards a carbon–neutral society and many have indeed picked up the challenge. However, only a small number of universities worldwide are collecting and publishing their carbon footprints, and some of them have defined zero emission targets. Unfortunately, there is limited consistency between the reported carbon footprints (CFs) because of different analysis methods, different impact measures, and different target definitions by the respective universities.

Results Comprehensive CF data of 20 universities from around the globe were collected and analysed. Essential factors contributing to the university CF were identified. For the first time, CF data from universities were not only compared. The CF data were also evaluated, partly corrected, and augmented by missing contributions, to improve the consistency and comparability. The CF performance of each university in the respective year is thus homogenized, and measured by means of two metrics: CO2e emissions per capita and per m2 of constructed area. Both metrics vary by one order of magnitude across the different universities in this study. However, we identified ten universities reaching a per capita carbon footprint of lower than or close to 1.0 Mt (metric tons) CO2e/person and year (normalized by the number of people associated with the university), independent from the university’s size. In addition to the aforementioned two metrics, we suggested a new metric expressing the economic efficiency in terms of the CF per $ expenditures and year. We next aggregated the results for all three impact measures, arriving at an overall carbon performance for the respective universities, which we found to be independent of geographical latitude. Instead the per capita measure correlates with the national per capita CFs, and it reaches on average 23% of the national impacts per capita. The three top performing universities are located in Switzerland, Chile, and Germany.

Conclusion The usual reporting of CO2 emissions is categorized into Scopes 1–3 following the GHG Protocol Corporate Accounting Standard which makes comparison across universities challenging. In this study, we attempted to standardize the CF metrics, allowing us to objectively compare the CF at several universities. From this study, we observed that, almost 30 years after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1992), the results are still limited. Only one zero emission university was identified, and hence, the transformation should speed up globally.