University of Freiburg: Toward a Climate Neutral University

The latest Environmental Report (Umweltbericht) of the University of Freiburg has just been published. The report includes data for its greenhouse gas emissions from energy use, waste, water, the fleet of vehicles, business travel, as well as procurement – from printing paper and laboratory equipment, to complete computer hardware solutions. The greenhouse gas emissions calculated in a study conducted by the Work Group for Sustainable Energy and Material Flow Management provided important data for the report.

The summer of 2019 was the kind of summer that comes once every hundred years. It was scorching hot, long, and dry. On hot days, the squeals of children happily playing in the fountains of cool water at the Platz der Alten Synagoge could be heard all over the University’s downtown campus. On many Friday mornings, the area in front of Collegiate Building II would fill with people taking part in Fridays For Future demonstrations. Their voices could be heard as high up as the roof of the University Library (UB) across the street, where the sun shone on the solar panels that were installed in 2015. The 750 photovoltaic modules cover an area of 2,000 square meters – about the size of three tennis courts. In 2019, they produced more than 200,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, supplying roughly 10% of the electricity used by the University Library.

These data can be found in the recently published Environmental Report (Umweltbericht) 2019–2020 of the University of Freiburg. When the University updated its guidelines for environmental protection and a greener investment policy in 2020, it made the commitment to ensure sustainable operations and to significantly expand its efforts to protect the climate. The new environmental report now provides a detailed overview of the University’s carbon emissions from 2017 to 2019. How high are they, and where do they come from? Unlike in the first environmental report for 2018–2019, this report includes data not only for the greenhouse gas emissions from energy use, but also from waste, water, the fleet of vehicles, business travel, and procurement – from printing paper and laboratory equipment, to complete computer hardware solutions.

Working Toward Net Zero Emissions

A comprehensive study on the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of the University of Freiburg for 2017 also provides key data on this issue and was written by Dr. Stefan Pauliuk, Assistant Professor for Sustainable Energy and Material Flow Management at the Faculty of Environment and Natural Resources, together with three master’s students. These two publications could not have come at a better time: The University of Freiburg is close to completing its road map for combating climate change, in which it will formulate its goals and what effective steps it plans to take to reduce carbon emissions. The intent of the road map is clear. “In accordance with the goals set by the climate strategy of the State of Baden Württemberg, our objective is to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2040,” says Lora Gyuzeleva, the Sustainability Manager in the Office of Safety, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of Freiburg. Gyuzeleva is also currently working on the University’s first sustainability report, which will include the University’s road map for combating climate change for 2022.

Nineteen years are not much time to reduce the University’s carbon footprint to zero, as Dr. Matthias Schenek, Head of Administration, says in the preface of the current Environmental Report, “but the University is committed to setting an example not only for research and academics, but also for a responsible institution by contributing to combating climate change through taking practical steps in its operations.” This means that the University of Freiburg must continue working to improve its carbon footprint.

Although some student groups are demanding that the University be carbon neutral by 2030 instead of 2040, Dr. Jürgen Steck, Head of the Office of Safety, Environment, and Sustainability, is quite pleased with the current data and is very happy that students are so involved. However, as he points out, the University of Freiburg does not own its campus buildings; it rents them from the State of Baden-Württemberg. This means that it must follow the climate strategy of the State of Baden-Württemberg. Yet one thing is for certain: “The Environmental Report will open people’s eyes at the University and raise awareness of the urgency of improving our carbon footprint,” he says, adding: “What is important is that we need everyone to be on board. We have to talk to people, be open to questions, and get them involved. That is the only way this will work.”

Into the paper press it goes! Recycled paper makes up 90 percent of all paper used at the University. Photo: Patrick Seeger

Strong in International Comparison

The numbers show the University of Freiburg is on the right track. If we take certified green electricity as a basis, the University’s total greenhouse gas emissions was 37,376 tons of CO2 in 2019. If we break this down to amount per capita of the University’s student body and staff, this equals 1.2 tons per year, or about half of the carbon dioxide per capita allowed to achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement of keeping the rise of global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. If we look at the actual electricity mix in Germany, however, the number is 1.7 tons per person (53,567 tons total), which is a rise of about one third compared to the green electricity. Based on the renewable energy sources scenario, procurement made up 14,486 tons, or 39 percent – in other words the largest part – of the University’s carbon footprint, followed by heating and cooling energy, which increased significantly to 13,584 tons, or 37 percent, in 2019 due to technical problems and construction work on groundwater facilities – in other words, this was an exceptional situation.

When these facilities, which use groundwater for cooling, run smoothly, they save a significant amount of fossil fuels. The use of drinking water also dropped in 2019 due to the University’s conversion from cooling all campus buildings with drinking water to cooling circuits (this project was still under construction in 2019, but has since been completed). The University’s heating made up 40 percent of its carbon emissions, which was below the average of all other universities in Baden-Württemberg. The use of paper also dropped another 20%, and the recycling ratio rose to 90%, which saved another 2 million liters of water.

The report also provides details about emissions caused by waste management in 2019. The University produced 1,107 tons of waste, almost half of which was industrial waste. Of the remaining waste, roughly 30 percent was recyclable paper and about 20 percent construction waste and recyclable materials. Only 88 tons (8 percent) of hazardous waste, such as chemicals and personal protective equipment, were produced. However, the complicated management of this waste made up 24 percent, or 1,019 tons, of total carbon dioxide emissions. Compared to higher education institutions all over the world, the University of Freiburg is one of the top universities in terms of sustainability. Thanks to its award-winning management system for reusables and hazardous waste, the University saved 89 tons of carbon dioxide in 2019.

Reducing the Emission of Greenhouse Gases

Steck and Gyuzeleva hope their current assessment of the University’s bicycling action plan will produce precise data about the environmental effect of business travel and the commuter traffic of students and teaching staff. How to make university buildings more sustainable is something resource researchers have been working on for some time and is also something that occupies Pauliuk. “In some departments, many offices are empty for long periods, while in other departments, buildings have to be rented,” he says, pointing out that this is neither economical nor ecological. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not just about procurement and waste management; it’s also about what we need, and what we don’t need, to be able to operate the university efficiently in the future,” he says.

Questions such as these are also important for Prof. Dr. Daniela Kleinschmit, Professor for Forest and Environmental Policy, who was named the first Vice-President for Internationalization and Sustainability [MM3] of the University of Freiburg in April 2021. Kleinschmit will be addressing the issue of sustainability in a strategic way with the entire University in mind. For this reason, she is working on the governance, while also acting as a bridge between the Office of Safety, Environment, and Sustainability and the rest of the University with the goal of initiating important processes for implementing measures to achieve a climate neutral university.

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