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How to embed a green strategy with lasting impact

27 May 2024

Barely a day goes by without a headline on climate change. The news story is often about people, particularly young people, lobbying for action or about governments around the world publishing net zero targets.

We have felt little of it at New City College. We have made, and remade, a choice to move forward on environmental sustainability with limited incentives and sometimes against opposition. Our story shows that you can become a greener college without net zero commitments, expensive consultancy or major capital investment.

Our green strategy started in earnest in the summer of 2020. Our new five-year strategic plan had been launched earlier that year with environmental sustainability flagged as a priority theme. We were fortunate as the AoC’s Climate Action Roadmap for FE colleges was launched at the same time and gave us the building blocks for how to get started.

We spent the first year building the foundations. We took stock of all the great sustainability initiatives that were hiding in plain sight in different parts of the college. We learnt the jargon on carbon footprints and calculated our own.

We created internal working groups to decide and drive action. We agreed to invest in a full-time environmental sustainability manager post to implement the strategy.

We got students and staff involved through fun green days and green weeks. We learnt from colleges that were well ahead of us and shamelessly replicated their initiatives.

In January 2022, we moved to the next phase: making actual changes to become a greener college.

We completed housekeeping actions on energy use and as a result have reduced our direct emissions (primarily from gas heating) by 8% and electricity-related emissions by 20% with no capital cost and despite increasing the size of our estate during this period. One simple action that made a big difference was reducing the overall average temperatures in our campuses.

We also launched a new green skills training provision based on low carbon technology labs we created with support from the strategic development fund. Our Teaching and Learning Lab provided practical support to curriculum areas through a pilot project on how to transition to sustainable classroom practices.

We took part in the global goals teach-ins and introduced all our young students to the United Nations sustainable development goals during the tutorials at our 2023 green week.

We took unpopular decisions and stopped selling beef at all catering outlets for a year, saving 3,000 tonnes of carbon from being emitted – or broadly the same amount that is emitted through the energy use of all our buildings combined.

Our approach has been that of continuous improvement and 2023/24 is looking to be our biggest year yet, with investment now coming through.

Our new green investment board has agreed to prioritise £2.25m of capital funding towards sustainability initiatives with 95% of the investment secured through grant funding. By March 2024, the first of our nine campuses will have moved away from using fossil fuels in the heating of the building – part-funded through a Salix grant.

We have moved three campuses to a sustainable waste management contract, investing 60% more on waste management, so that we can be confident that none of the waste we produce ends up on a beach abroad.

Sustainability is one of five key themes in this year’s curriculum review and we will use the self-assessment review process to assess the strength and weaknesses in the embedding of sustainability into teaching and learning.

We are working with Students Organising for Sustainability UK to pilot a menu-flipping project at two campuses to test how to encourage students to choose vegetarian and vegan food options more frequently.

In autumn 2024 we will take stock of where we have got to and will produce the next phase of our plan, mapping how we get to net zero – a commitment we haven’t wanted to make until we have known what it really takes.

As is to be expected, we have highlighted our successes, and being shortlisted for the Inenco Award for Education for Sustainable Development at the AoC Beacon Awards is recognition of how far we have come.

However, there have been a few failures along the way too – ask us about tree planting if you want to hear an example.

Our advice for colleges looking to implement a whole-college environmental sustainability strategy is simple: just get started. There are plenty of tools and organisations in the sector that can help. If you want to throw some ideas around in a safe space, feel free to contact me.

If like us, your starting point is relatively low, you are likely to see change in a small amount of time. There will be plenty of hiccups along the way but even small successes help inspire further action which over time becomes a movement.

Riikka Vihriälä is the Group Head of Strategic Projects at New City College

Find out more about sponsoring an AoC Beacon Award here.