Can we make TU Delft carbon-neutral?

In 2018, TU Delft produced greenhouse gas emissions of about 48,000 tons of CO2 equivalents. That’s about 1.6 t per student or employee. This was calculated by researchers from the Faculty of Architecture and published in a CO2 roadmap last year. Let’s put that into perspective: The average Dutch person was responsible for about 15.8 t of CO2 equivalents in that year. Or in other words: To compensate all the TU’s emissions, a forest of 36 km2 would be needed – while the whole municipality of Delft is only 24 km2 large.

At the same time, TU Delft committed itself to be carbon-neutral by 2030. So, it seems that a lot of work still needs to be done, definitely more than planting some trees. But where to start?

Food

The biggest bunch (nearly 29%) in the TU’s CO2 footprint is food consumed by students and employees while they are on campus. Note that there is most likely a large error attached to this number because the authors of the report assumed an average Dutch diet here. Data from the caterers or about what people brought from home was not available. Comparing different types of food, the highest climate impact comes from meat and dairy products – both essential pillars of the typical Dutch cuisine that is offered in most canteens on campus. It seems an easy step to re-negotiate the contracts with the caterers to make them offer more vegetarian and vegan options, make meat more expensive, to ban beef (which has a much larger footprint than other types of meat) or to make vegetarian/vegan the default option when ordering food for a meeting or event. Steps that would not only benefit the planet but also people’s health and even their wallet!

Energy

The next largest categories are energy in different forms: natural gas (28%) and electricity (18%). Though most of the electricity used on campus (about 78%) comes from wind farms that have a very low climate impact, some of it is produced by the university’s own heat network, which runs on natural gas and produces part of the heat required on campus as well as electricity. Here, the most important step is to get rid of or modernise buildings on campus to make them more energy-efficient. Following this advice, the Science Centre, Chemical Engineering and the Kramer Lab have already been sold. The other most worrisome buildings are the Botanical Garden, Applied Science, Civil Engineering, 3ME and EWI. Surprisingly, the quite old Architecture building is among the most efficient buildings on campus.

Travel

Getting to campus by car accounts for about 11% of all emissions. Stimulating people to go by public transport or bike is a good strategy and pilots with free e-bikes or OV cards have already taken place and shown good results. But why do the ‘bosses’ not lead by good example? In 2018, Tim van der Hagen spent only 0.2% of his travel budget for public transport and 98.4% for taxis. Is it beneath the dignity of a Rector Magnificus to take the train?

Apart from that, there is the air travel of researchers and students going to conferences, workshops and field work, which makes up 14% of the emissions. Within Europe, the train can in many cases be an alternative that is often just as cheap, fast and comfortable, while producing only a fraction of the emissions. Utrecht University has compiled a fantastic guide that compares travel times and costs by train and plane to many European destinations and not only encourages its employees to take the train according to this but also gives them practical advice on how to plan their journey. TU Delft so far has nothing like this in place. Of course, due to the corona crisis, many of us have learned that online meetings and conferences can in fact be a good alternative, so maybe we will anyway travel less in the future.

Can we make it?

TU Delft’s own goal to become carbon-neutral by 2030 will be very difficult to achieve. Even if all measures laid out in the CO2 roadmap are taken, there still remain 17,000 tons of CO2 equivalents. These will need to be compensated. For example, by planting a forest of 13 km2 – more than five times the size of the campus.

You see: It will require good will and persistence by not only the decision makers but by the whole TU Delft community to bring about this change. That’s why the authors of the CO2 roadmap propose an honour code for all students and employees: Working and studying at TU Delft means not only endorsing but also acting according to its mission including that of sustainability.

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