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If universities want to reach climate targets, they need to use their land for carbon offset.
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If universities want to reach climate targets, they need to use their land for carbon offset.

A meadow under a blue sky


Over 1,000Universities and colleges from 68 countries have vowed to reduce their emissions by half by 2030 and reach net zero emissions in 2050. Initiatives to install solar panels and LED lighting in buildings, such as at the University of BristolThese are important steps forward. But for emissions which prove harder to reduce – like those from heating ancient listed buildings – many universities will have to resort to carbon offsetting.

Carbon offsetting – capturing and storing atmospheric carbon or reducing carbon emissions from one source in order to compensate for emissions made elsewhere – is a practice that, while controversial, can help reach net zero goals. Academic institutions will reach net zeroThe greenhouse gases that their activities emit are counterbalanced by greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.

Many organisations pay for carbon offset from providers. overseas projectsFor example, for protecting and growing forests. However, universities across the UK and abroad have substantial amounts of land they could use for offsets to their own emissions.

The universities of Cambridge and Oxford are two of the most prominent. largest landownersThe UK. The US’s ten largest colleges cover more than 45,982 hectaresBetween them. Yet our review16 universities have carbon-management plans. None of them had quantifiably considered how their land could be used for offsets.

A meadow under a blue sky
Christchurch Meadow is part of the University of Oxford’s land.

Our research

Newcastle UniversityTwo research farms are managed in north-east England, Cockle Park & Nafferton. They cover an area of 805 ha. Our research found that the carbon stored in this land amounts to 103,619 tonnes – 98,050 tonnes from the top 90cm of soil and 5,569 tonnes from trees.

That’s equivalent to 16 years’ worth of the university’s greenhouse gas emissions at current rates. We concluded thatThe university could reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 50% by changing how it uses land at farms.

Currently, most of the university’s farmland is arable, meaning that the land is ploughed or tilled regularly to grow crops – removing carbon from the soil. By changing one of the university’s farms to mixed woodland with broad-leaved and coniferous trees, converting it into a carbon sequestration research centre, Newcastle University could capture 1,856 tonnes of carbon per year – offsetting 29% of its greenhouse gas emissions over a period of 40 years.

Researchers at universities could then systematically study various subjects nature-based solutionsTo reduce emissions, such as tree-planting rewildingOr agroforestryThese implications have implications for biodiversity, as well as economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

This could reverse significant terrestrial carbon losses due to land-use change in the past. The division between agricultural land and woodland at Nafferton farm likely resulted from medieval “slash-and-burn” agriculture. Our data shows that this process involved burning woods to create the fields. This resulted in a carbon loss of approximately 74,000 tonnes from Nafferton farm.

Cockle Park Farm, which is part of Newcastle University, has been there since 1896. a mapAround 1900 showed that 84% was managed as meadows or pastures while only 16% was arable. Only 21% of land is now managed as permanent meadows and/or pastures, while 79% are arable. The farm was managed by Newcastle University. This resulted in a carbon reduction of approximately 3,250 tonnes.


Implementing carbon offsetting programs that change land use entirely is difficult. According to our university’s farm director, the main concerns would be restrictions on land use within tenancy agreementsHow land-use changes might affect government agricultural subsidies or the university’s ability to deliver agricultural teaching.

We need to find ways to increase soil carbon on arable land in light of this. This could be achieved by using manure and straw as fertiliser, tilling less land, or recycling straw and manure. mob grazing. Mob grazing is where lots of animals are released onto a small area of grass to graze for a short time, before leaving the grass to recover for longer than usual – believed to enhance soil carbon content.

Once carbon offsetting strategies are in place the pros and cons to using land in this manner can be discussed and researched in the academic community to improve offsetting techniques. exporting offsets overseas.

To achieve their ambitious net-zero carbon goals, universities must first reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To offset the remaining carbon emissions, universities should seriously think about carbon offsetting strategies for land under their control. That’s how they can set a good example to other land-holding institutions across the world.


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