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University of Canterbury engineers a zero-carbon future

An illustration of one of University of Canterbury's new power plant rooms.

An illustration of one of University of Canterbury's new power plant rooms.

You don’t need a science or engineering degree to understand that keeping warm is crucial on a cold winter’s morning – but how do you heat hundreds of buildings and thousands of people in a sustainable way?


It’s a challenge the University of Canterbury has been working on for more than a decade, as they look to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2030.


In ANZ’s latest Sustainability Insights paper, Hitting the Target, the university is among businesses profiled for their emission reduction efforts under the guidance of Toitū Envirocare.

University of Canterbury's new Haera-roa UCSA building, which is heated by a ground source heat pump.

University of Canterbury's new Haera-roa UCSA building, which is heated by a ground source heat pump.


University of Canterbury was the first university in the Southern Hemisphere to achieve Toitū carbonreduce certification in 2011, for its emissions reduction strategy.


In the years since setting its emissions baseline, it has achieved a 23 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.


Toitū Senior Account Manager Ben Nistor says once organisations have started measuring their emissions, they should look to assess the materiality of each class of those emissions – and address the biggest sources first.


“For example, waste makes up only around 4% of most companies’ carbon footprints, so it may be better to focus elsewhere, at least initially, on larger emissions sources,” Ben says.


For the University, their heating system is top of the list.


“It’s our largest source of emissions by far,” says University of Canterbury Pro-Vice-Chancellor Sustainability Professor Jan Evans-Freeman.

Professor Jan Evans-Freeman - University of Canterbury Pro-Vice-Chancellor Sustainability.

Professor Jan Evans-Freeman - University of Canterbury Pro-Vice-Chancellor Sustainability.


“In a normal year (without Covid) burning coal contributes to around half of our emissions - that’s why we’ve committed to reducing coal-based emissions by 80 per cent by the end of 2024, from our 2010 baseline.”


At present, the university’s extensive 87-hectare campus is heated mostly by large coal-fired boilers, which heat radiators.


It has progressively been installing ground source heat pumps (GSHPs) to allow heating to new buildings and has plans to retrofit them to efficiently heat as many of its existing buildings as possible.


GSHPs work by taking water from subterranean aquifers and extracting heat from it.


The water extracted from the aquifer is further warmed using a heat pump, and used to heat the buildings by being sent through a network of pipes throughout buildings, heating them efficiently


After circulation, during which the water cools, the cooler water is returned to the aquifer.


Meanwhile, the coal boiler will be converted to run on biomass, in the form of wood chip waste.


The University of Canterbury has also been upgrading the thermal efficiency of its buildings, so they are compatible with GSHP.



“Achieving that switch from coal will reduce our greenhouse gas profile significantly,” Professor Evans-Freeman says, “so the focus now is on reducing emissions in other areas, which may be more difficult to achieve.”


Another main source of emissions for the university is air travel.


“Networking is incredibly important in academia, and academics build their networks by attending and giving talks at conferences and other events,” Professor Evans-Freeman says.


“While the pandemic has seen some conferences move online, research shows they are less effective in terms of growing your professional networks.


“The real challenge will come as Covid-19 travel restrictions are relaxed - we know there will be a pent-up demand, and we also know attending conferences and events is ingrained in the academic psyche,” she says.


“That’s why, instead of imposing a strict carbon budget or simply a blanket travel ban, our approach is to bring our community along with us. That means encouraging our people to look at options that contribute to both the University’s emissions reduction targets, and their professional objectives - for example, travelling less frequently but staying for longer.”


The University has set targets to reduce air travel by 5 per cent per annum, taking 2019 as the base year.


Along with a reduction in emissions, UC is also sequestering an increasing amount of carbon on its land through its forest plantation.


ANZ New Zealand Managing Director of Business Banking Lorraine Mapu says seeing large customers like UC making progress towards their emission-reduction goals is encouraging.

“We are increasingly seeing businesses of all sizes making changes to their operations to meet their environmental goals, and this aligns well with both stakeholder expectations, as well as those of consumers.”

Lorraine Mapu - ANZ New Zealand Managing Director of Business Banking


“The scale of the work being undertaken by the university is obviously large, and ANZ is in the process of rolling out new products to support projects like these at a business level,” Ms Mapu says.


The development of its sustainability strategy was driven by a wide range of stakeholders, Professor Evans-Freeman says.


“Our leadership is committed to continuous improvements and students told us they wanted the university to become more sustainable.


“For us, it’s integral to our purpose, in terms of the way we operate, preparing our students for a more sustainable future, and contributing to research that enables it.


“It’s vital that we can show we are ‘walking the talk’ in terms of our own emissions reductions.”


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