Towards carbon neutrality – The University of Helsinki calculates its carbon footprint and draws up a plan to reduce emissions

The University set emission reduction targets for its community in terms of facilities, procurement, travel and transport, and food. The University’s multidisciplinary research, innovation activities and teaching are also making a significant contribution to sustainability efforts.

In its strategic plan, the University of Helsinki has set the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. The recently published roadmap describes the University’s carbon footprinting and identifies central sets of measures through which the University can achieve significant emission reductions by 2030.

“We want to be a leader in sustainability and responsibility, and serve as an example of how an organisation the size of the University of Helsinki can set realistic carbon-neutrality goals,” says Vice-Rector Tom Böhling.

In the University’s roadmap, measures are divided into four categories: carbon-neutral facilities, sustainable procurement, low-emission travel and transport, and sustainable eating habits. An emission reduction plan has been drawn up for each category.

“We are urging our entire community of almost 40,000 individuals to participate in this climate action. The roadmap shows that the community can take small actions that are cumulative,” Böhling notes.

Students are satisfied with the ambition of the University’s carbon-neutrality goals. Linnéa Partanen, a member of the Board of the Student Union of the University of Helsinki, points out that the current generation of students will bear the consequences of the decisions made today.

“We want to do everything in our power to curb climate change. Participating in the climate debate and identifying solutions give us hope,” Partanen says.

A 65% reduction in carbon footprint

In 2019, the University’s carbon footprint was 77,777 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO₂e). Because the coronavirus pandemic disrupted operations in 2020 and 2021, the year 2019 was chosen as the period of analysis. The University of Helsinki’s emissions amount to 1.96 tonnes of CO₂e per person, taking into consideration staff, students and pupils of the teacher training schools (39,710 people in total).

Another commonly used form of reporting is based on the total floor space used by the organisation. For the University of Helsinki, this figure is 175 kg of CO₂e per 1 m2 (451,696 m2 of floor space in total). In contrast, the figure based on the University’s annual turnover is 115 kg of CO₂e per €1,000 (€676.6 million in total).

“The figures compare relatively well with the results published by other universities, although the calculation methods used vary. The results will be more comparable in the coming years, as Finnish universities will have developed common principles for calculating their carbon footprint and the related reporting will be harmonised. This work is carried out in a coordinated manner under the direction of a sustainability and responsibility working group set up by Universities Finland UNIFI,” says Pekka Joensuu, who managed the project to make the University carbon neutral by 2030.

In the future, the University will calculate its carbon footprint annually, and the effects of the measures taken will be actively monitored. The goal is to reduce the carbon footprint by 65% by 2030. In terms of the remaining emissions, the University will examine the deployment of internal and external carbon offset models. 

Aiming for carbon-neutral facilities and sustainable procurement

In 2019, facilities accounted for 48% of the University’s total emissions. The largest individual emission sources were purchased electricity and district heating. After facilities, the next biggest sources of emissions were procurement (30% of total emissions), and travel and transport (15%). Food accounted for 7% of total emissions.

In terms of facilities, the goal for 2030 is that all electricity and district heating purchased by the University are carbon neutral, while 10% of the energy consumption will be covered by independently produced renewable energy. At the same time, fossil heating fuels will be abandoned. In addition, energy consumption will be reduced by 15%.

“For a long time, we have been paying attention to the energy efficiency of our properties and increasing our independent energy production by building several solar power plants and geothermal heating solutions. However, reducing energy consumption is one of our most central goals, including in terms of global sustainability,” says Director of Properties and Facilities Teppo Salmikivi.

In the future, goods and services will be purchased only from suppliers that are committed to low-carbon solutions. It is important to be able to easily monitor the carbon footprints of all purchases.

In terms of travel and transport, the University has investigated both commuting and work-related travel. In the case of the former, driving one’s own car generates the most emissions, while in the case of the latter, the biggest source of emissions is air travel. While international activities and mobility are important for the University, substantial reductions in air travel are sought, and the plan is to draw up comprehensive guidelines for low-carbon travel and transport.

Most of the emissions from meals originate in the lunch cafeterias operating on University premises, from which the University expects transparent low-carbon and sustainability programmes. The University hosts several cafeterias operated by Ylva, a business owned by the Student Union. According to Linnéa Partanen, Ylva is in many ways a leader in responsibility.

“This is evident, for example, in the cafeterias of UniCafe, where we offer responsible and diverse vegetarian and vegan food at student prices. The latest location, Myöhä, offers vegan options only.”

The University as a promoter of a climate-smart future

While the new roadmap is an important document that guides the University’s operations, Vice-Rector Tom Böhling points out that the University has the opportunity and duty to promote carbon-neutrality goals particularly through science, research and teaching.

“The biggest impact on sustainability comes from our research and teaching, both in Finland and internationally. We have 40,000 students and researchers and 11 faculties conducting groundbreaking multidisciplinary research, we train future climate experts, and we create innovations based on research,” Böhling states.

He also emphasises that at the heart of climate action is collaboration among the University community and with other parties active in society. One theme on which the University wishes to stimulate discussion is the carbon handprint, or what the University is contributing to climate action through research and teaching.

“The role of the carbon handprint in higher education is being investigated at several universities. We intend to be at the forefront of developing this challenging perspective and defining the carbon handprint together with our national and international partners,” says project manager Pekka Joensuu.

Although the definition of a carbon handprint remains inadequate, the University aims to promote it by enhancing awareness of climate issues within the academic community. Already now, there are sustainability courses available to both students and staff, with more on the way during this and the coming year. Members of the University community are also encouraged to contribute actively to public debate on the effects and prevention of climate change.

“In our climate efforts, genuine impact is key. Here too, the University community must have the courage to defend the significance of research knowledge,” Joensuu says.