It’s one thing to set a target. It’s another to work out how to meet it. Like any other sector, education in Australia is on a journey to achieve net zero over the coming two decades. But for universities, there are unique challenges and opportunities attached to moving toward that goal.

The policy landscape is becoming clearer. While mandates have not arrived, the federal government’s National Energy Performance Strategy and the International Financial Reporting Standards IFRS releasing sustainability reporting standards offer frameworks to guide our work. Of course, the most critical document is the IPCC report, which highlights the need to take on everything, everywhere, all at once. Furthermore, progressive action on these critical sustainability agendas is important to strengthening and maintaining positive reputations as institutions committed to leaving a legacy of impact. 

Over the past 12 months, our firm has workshopped how to realise a low-carbon future for the education sector with over 40 university representatives from 13 organisations. We uncovered challenges, roadblocks, and opportunities on the path toward more sustainable approaches to campus-built environments. Together, we found three pathways to create a low carbon education sector in Australia. 

Pathway 1: The electrified campus

One of the difficulties with achieving full electrification is the lack of a universal solution to convert existing buildings. With so many kinds of buildings on a campus, there can never really be a one-size-fits-all approach. But as an industry, we can work together to categorise building typologies, focusing on certain building types collectively to build shared knowledge and faster outcomes. 

For example, Victoria has an aggressive target to reach 95 per cent renewable energy by 2035; there is real urgency in the state to act on energy transformation. Currently, gas delivers 64 per cent of energy to commercial buildings, so significant electrification is required across the sector. 

Energy efficiency and usage reduction will be a leading contributor to achieving our targets. Interventions such as buying green power have worked to reduce the carbon footprint of some organisations so far, but if the demand for energy is increasing, the goal will remain out of reach. Unfortunately, efficiency and energy reduction actions require larger investments, which is why it is often overlooked.

However, there are organisations leading the change. Working with Macquarie University on their incubator building, we offset 60 per cent of energy use. The roof is fitted with photovoltaic solar panels to make the most of external conditions, while an overhanging roof and solid façade elements, including high-performance windows, minimise heat gains. 

There is great enthusiasm for working together and sharing models and pathways as each university tests and explores options. Working together, universities will become a catalyst for innovation that leads the whole industry forward.

Johanna Trickett


Pathway 2: Quantifying emissions and reducing embodied carbon

Another pathway is quantifying our Scope 3 emissions. It is a seismic shift to begin accounting for everything from the paper we buy, the materials in our building works, and the transport used by staff and students to arrive on campus. 

To date, we have seen multiple standards explored to cover Scope 3 emissions, and they can often show vastly different results when applied to the same data. So, we are in the dark on detail, but it is an area where education can play a leading role. By making misalignment of standards a clear part of our conversations, we create awareness, providing opportunities for professionals to educate themselves and keep asking questions so that our understanding of Scope 3 measurement can evolve. 

One option for the sector is to demand all design briefs include scenarios for embodied emissions to be assessed and compared. Reusing and adapting buildings whenever possible, given the embodied carbon of existing stock, is considered zero emissions.

Working with University of Tasmania on their new Forestry building we measured the embodied carbon output from the first day of construction through to the eventual removal at the conclusion of the building’s life. Through material reuse, we reduced embodied carbon by 44 per cent. 

By collectively challenging standards and proactively sharing lessons learned, we can begin industry transformation.

Pathway 3: Precinct-wide decarbonisation

In a precinct approach, each building can be treated as part of a cluster or system of buildings. They are often called ‘living buildings’ as they talk to each other and exchange energy or even other resources. There is potential to turn the waste of one building into a useful service in another. These are certainly not new ideas, yet there is no single answer on which approach is best. It is in the research and innovation where we build the skills the entire industry is seeking. 

For example, in Adelaide, the merger of the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia will see a significant reshaping of campus environments as redevelopment and consolidation of facilities occur. 

Working with La Trobe University on their new sport’s stadium, we designed a vast high-spec photovoltaic array on the roof that amounts to over 519 kW and generates around 724,000 kWh per year. This is more than enough to meet the stadium’s electrical demand, so surplus renewable energy is fed back into the rest of the campus.

When compared to the office sector, the education industry has a lack of commercial pressure toward energy reduction. Property developers are constantly competing against others in a market where achieving high NABERS ratings is essential to the demands of development clients or potential tenants. But in education, there is limited connection between improved environmental standards and the reasons why students will choose one university over another.

Instead, it is important for universities to look toward co-benefits in the drive for sustainability improvements. While reputation is a notable but minor benefit for the sector, one major co-benefit is health and wellbeing improvements. We know that buildings designed to better environmental standards also offer a more pleasant lived experience. At a precinct level, this can also speak to campus activation benefits.

The campus as a living laboratory

The light at the end of the tunnel is in the far distance. The expertise to achieve some of the outcomes we need is in short supply – and some are simply yet to truly exist. 

As centres of higher education, we can engage with the biggest challenges every industry faces and to use campus transformation as a ‘living laboratory’ to train the next generation experts we need. Alongside the desire to cooperate and work together toward building cutting-edge knowledge, the university sector can take a strong leadership stake in testing and exploring what is possible and creating the solutions that shape a better future.

Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association (TEFMA) data suggests the Australia/New Zealand university sector manages a combined floor space of over 15 million square metres. That’s approximately three times the size of the Melbourne CBD’s office space. Through collective action, the sector could be a powerful base for driving the adoption of new standards and approaches to how we think about everything from building efficiency to Scope 3 accounting. 

Adopting a positive mindset, we must embrace the challenge of this moment. With no map before us, this becomes an opportunity for real creation and innovation. Our firm looks forward to continued engagement with the sector and hopes to facilitate more conversations. Collective transparency adds to the momentum of every effort to meet this most critical challenge of our generation.