An education in the environment: how is your university managing its environmental risk?

Universities face a wide range of environmental risks that arise during their day to day operations. Activities such as ensuring compliance with environmental legislation, the procurement of goods and services and the redevelopment or expansion of the estate all need to be understood and managed correctly. Failure to do so would likely see the university face significant fines, prosecution, operational disruption and reputational damage.

Understanding the environmental risks your university faces

Environmental risk can be considered under the six key categories:

  1. normal operations;
  2. incident and accidents;
  3. energy use and compliance;
  4. waste management;
  5. changes to the estate; and
  6. supply chain.

Normal operations

Universities produce emissions into the atmosphere and down drains, in the form of effluent, from the chemicals that are used in their laboratories - and these emissions need to be controlled so that consent limits are not exceeded. Similarly, the use of energy releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and this pollutant is legislated under the Climate Change Act 2008.

Environmental accidents

Environmental incidents can occur in the operation of the university estate and facilities and in laboratories where research, innovation and teaching takes place. Such incidents are often a result of the inappropriate storage, handling, use and disposal of materials. These accidents can result in the spillage or loss of containment and an uncontrolled release into the environment - with potentially damaging effects across the university.

Energy use

The use of energy produces carbon dioxide equivalent emissions which are having an impact on the climate. The Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) Energy Efficiency Scheme requires participants, including universities, to report their carbon emissions to the Environment Agency, pay a carbon tax and produce an audited evidence pack. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has also introduced targets for carbon emission reduction for the higher education sector. In order to achieve these targets, universities must implement a carbon reduction plan - and have its progress measured against their peers.


Universities have a duty of care to ensure that their waste is reused, recycled or disposed of in compliance with legislation and best practice. Universities can also produce hazardous waste which needs to be disposed in accordance with the Hazardous Waste Regulations 2005.

The expansion or changes to university property

When purchasing or selling property, the university needs to ensure that it undertakes an environmental due diligence exercise so that it does not inherit or retain any environmental liabilities The university also needs to understand its latent environmental risks associated with contaminated land, asbestos, radon and other hazardous materials before embarking on any redevelopment project.

The disruption caused by climate change

Disruption to the supply chain may be caused by extreme weather events due to climate change. Although organisations have little control over the likelihood or severity of such events, they can build resilience into their supply chain.

Gradual long term changes in climate can be managed through the preparation of a climate change adaptation plan. This plan should assess the risks to the university’s operations and outlines plans to address the predicted impact.

Supply chain

Universities need to avoid disruption to their supplies as this can have a severe impact on their ability to carry out research and teaching. Disruption can be caused by using suppliers who do not take their environmental and social responsibility seriously. This lack of responsibility could lead to an enforcement notice, fines, prosecutions, protests and strike action resulting in disruption to the supply chain.

Managing these environmental risks

The environmental risks that universities face can be complex and wide ranging. To manage these risks the university would benefit from formal management processes and should adopt systems that follow the international standard ISO 14001 for environmental management systems.

If the university desires a wider scope, such as sustainable development or ‘corporate responsibility management’ (which takes account of social value and stakeholder benefits) then the equivalent systems can be developed, and implemented, by following the ISO 26000 guidance on social responsibility.

The benefits of adopting environmental risk management

By ensuring that environmental risks are kept to a minimum the university will benefit from reduced costs right across their operations, including the supply chain, and enjoy significant savings through a reduction in their consumption of energy and natural resources. Such displays of environmental consideration have the added benefit of increasing the university’s reputation, which can have a positive effect on student recruitment and attracting research funding.

To find out how you can help your university better meet its environmental responsibilities please contact Graham Dalrymple