If it were a small market town, the University of Edinburgh's campaign to transform the lifestyles, travel habits and consumption of its entire population into one of the greenest and most climate-savvy in Britain would have made headlines.
In what may be one of the country's quietest green revolutions, over the next few months, every one of its 25,700 students and 10,400 employees will be confronted with a significant personal challenge: cutting their flights, meat consumption, energy bills and driving by at least a tenth in under a year.
With a population of 36,000, the university is equivalent in size to Grantham or Bridgend. At a conservative estimate, this "town" emits at least 350,000 tonnes of CO2-equivalent each year. And the campaign is straying well beyond the traditional interests of academics and university administrators into uncomfortable areas such as the heavy reliance on air travel by researchers and students.
The university is one of scores of educational institutions across the UK that have joined the 10:10 climate campaign to make a 10% cut in CO2 emissions next year. Many aim to make deep cuts in their energy use to meet the target; many hope to exceed it.
10:10 signatories such as City University in London have pledged a 15% cut and want to save 1,000 tonnes a year with a new combined cooling, heat and power (CCHP) plant. Bristol University, too, will cut its emissions by 15%, spending £2m next year on energy efficiency. St Peter's College, Oxford, is aiming at a 20% cut in two years.
However, Edinburgh believes its policies are the most radical. Last week, its initiative was given a significant boost when it won £339,000 from the Scottish government's Climate Challenge fund to employ six staff for 16 months to conduct an exhaustive study of its carbon emissions, and then champion lasting cuts in the emissions.
"It's a short, sharp opportunity for us to harness the community's capacity for change," said David Somervell, Edinburgh's sustainability adviser. The six staff will run its carbon reduction campaign, called Transition Edinburgh University (TEU), named after the global Transition network, which aims to increase sustainability at a community level. It is a campaign officially sanctioned by the university principal, Timothy O'Shea, and overseen by its vice-principal for sustainability, Mary Bownes.
Edinburgh has already cut its energy use by 31% since 1990, despite trebling in size. It already has the highly efficient CCHP plants now being installed by other 10:10 signatories, and it is gutting its 1960s buildings and refitting them with double-glazing, sensor-activated lighting and insulated cladding. Its newest building, housing the psychology, philosophy, language science and computing departments, uses state-of-the-art, low-carbon technology, earning an "excellent" rating for energy efficiency.
But that, said Somervell, was relatively easy. The university's own energy use – its heating, lighting, academic travel and small vehicle fleet – accounts for just under a sixth of the community's CO2 emissions. Targeting the lifestyles of students and academics is a far tougher task: the campaign is effectively probing into the private lives of 36,000 people.
Preliminary research into the lifestyles of Edinburgh's mostly British-born first-years threw up a challenging discovery. Lured by cheap flights, domestic air travel is now routine, even for freshers.
The university's transition team surveyed freshers who had moved into the Pollock halls of residence, which provides housing for 2,000 students south of the city centre. They were questioned about issues such as their food bills, meat-eating, leisure spending, commuting and book costs. They were also asked to list the flights taken this year. Perhaps naively, the form only gave them space for eight one-way journeys. For many, the list of flights spilled over on to the back of the form.
Somervell's team knows the university paid for nearly 7,000 flights in 2007-08 to conferences and meeting research partners, resulting in 95% of its own "internal" travel-related emissions, and nearly 5,000 tonnes of CO2.
But an exhaustive 96-page study of the university's total climate impact and its strategies for tackling it, called Footprints and Handprints, estimated that its 7,500 overseas students produced five times as much just on their flights home, or 25,855 tonnes of CO2. Per capita, this is 11 times higher than the average British student. It also equals half of Edinburgh's total "institutional" CO2 emissions.
It raises a conundrum for universities trying to significantly cut climate emissions. Facing a 15% reduction in future funding, institutions such as Edinburgh feel intense pressure to increase overseas student numbers to increase revenue, influence and prestige.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency estimates there were 390,000 overseas students in the UK in 2007-08. Using Edinburgh's estimate that every foreign student flies home twice a year, that produces 1.34m tonnes of CO2 a year.
Somervell plans to test these figures, and all the other carbon emissions data in Footprints and Handprints, in a major survey of all students and staff in January. Despite this conflict in objectives, he believes that the carbon burden from overseas students can be absorbed by other measures to tackle CO2 emissions.
Ric Lander, an environment and development master's graduate from Edinburgh, and one of the paid co-ordinators of TEU whose salary is covered by the Scottish government's Climate Challenge grant, said foreign students were vigorous activists in the low-carbon campaign and the university's People and Planet society, which has helped drive the campaign. The initiative is defined by its international outlook. "Often they're the boldest people with an interesting perspective," he said.
Next year's campaign will ask students to make their digs more energy efficient and greener – it has 20 volunteers running the "big green makeover" campaign for student flats; encouraging lower meat or meat-free diets; funding energy-saving competitions between halls of residence; promoting car sharing; getting students to swap flights for trains; asking academics to install video-conferencing suites to "meet" foreign colleagues on screen; and promoting re-use of discarded duvets and household goods at campus "swap shops".
Facing rising energy prices, a worsening climate, potential taxes on carbon emissions and cuts in central government spending, reducing CO2 emissions increases Edinburgh's resilience and demonstrates social responsibility, Somervell argues. "It's about positioning and future-proofing the university as an institution and reducing future risk. It's about ensuring we've a strategy for our continuance."
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