university of edinburgh

UK universities could reduce carbon emissions with shorter winter terms, study finds

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University of Edinburgh researchers have found that shifting learning weeks to the summer term and extending the winter holiday period could reduce the university’s yearly CO2 emissions by more than 4 per cent.

While strategies to reduce carbon emissions normally require significant time and financial investment, the research suggests that this kind of schedule change could offer a simple and low-cost way to reduce carbon emissions.

“This approach does not really require any significant investment,” said Wei Sun, an energy system researcher and author on the paper. “We just need willingness from staff and students to be open to the changes in semester dates.”

The team monitored how more than 20 universities are currently managing their energy consumptions on campus, including their semester schedules. They then looked at heat and energy usage for the University of Edinburgh (where some of the researchers work) over the course of the year. This helped them propose the most environmentally friendly semester schedule for the university.

They found that by starting a new semester on the second week of September, followed by a 12-week winter learning semester and a five-week winter holiday, they could reduce CO2 emissions by 167 tonnes - approximately 4.2 per cent of the university’s total.

“This would mean there was an extended period off during the winter period, and in turn, longer summer semesters. This could contribute to lower heating costs during the winter period and a decrease in emissions overall,” Sun said.

Other universities could adopt a similar approach, but timings would need to vary based on where they are located.

“In future studies, it would be useful to adapt our approach to compare the energy consumptions of universities under different climate zones to see what impact our approach would have globally. But for UK universities, it’s clear that changing semester times could reduce emissions,” Sun said. 

The initial study was conducted before the pandemic and the researchers would now like to explore how hybrid learning might affect their recommendations.

“In a post-pandemic world, we will be looking into other strategies to reduce emissions,” Sun said. “We saw a huge carbon reduction during the pandemic and now things are slowly getting back to normal, so we’d like to see if emissions continue to drop with lectures now online and less physical attendance in person.”

The first half of 2020 saw the largest-ever drop in carbon emissions in a single year, with bigger falls than the financial crisis of 2008, the 1979 oil crisis and even World War II.

The greatest reduction of emissions was observed in the ground transportation sector, where working from home restrictions resulted in a 40 per cent drop in transport CO2 emissions worldwide.

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