- The University of Sri Jayewardenepura (USJ) in Sri Lanka has assessed its carbon footprint under ISO standards and has now become the country’s first university to be carbon audited.
- USJ recently assessed its carbon footprint under the ISO 14064-1 standard, a process that proved to be more difficult than calculating the footprint of an industrial establishment such as a factory, which has more easily quantifiable carbon emissions than a university.
- The university intends to reach carbon-neutral status mainly through energy efficiency projects and reforestation of three forest patches managed by the university in order to offset its carbon emissions.
COLOMBO — The small Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka may contribute only 0.03% to global carbon emission levels yet it has set an ambitious target to become carbon neutral by the year 2050. In a parallel move, the University of Sri Jayewardenepura (USJ), one of the island’s leading national universities, also aims to become carbon neutral.
A “carbon footprint” is the total amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions released into the atmosphere by the actions of an individual or group. USJ first calculated its carbon footprint for the year 2019, which amounted to 3,838.56 metric tons of CO2. Next, the institute had its carbon emissions audited under ISO 14064-1 (a framework for international GHG accounting and reporting), verifying its carbon footprint according to global standards and becoming the first Sri Lankan university to do so.
“There are institutes that claim to have reduced or neutralized their carbon footprints, but we wanted to do it in a scientific and globally accepted manner, with the final goal of making USJ a true green university,” says Priyan Perera, head of USJ’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Science (DFES).
“Accurate carbon footprint reporting in an institution of this magnitude is no easy task and we value the support of all departments on campus,” Perera tells Mongabay.
USJ has 11 faculties or departments where more than 15,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students study. With nearly 4,000 academic and nonacademic staff, it has been an uphill task to capture the activities and tag carbon emissions respective to those activities. “There were a lot of direct and indirect emissions that we had to capture, and it proved to be more difficult than calculating a carbon footprint of a setup such as a factory, which is more straightforward,” says Perera. “For example, we have even calculated the footprint of the chemicals used in the labs,”Perera tells Mongabay.
Carbon management team
For the gathering of carbon footprint data, the USJ set up a “carbon management team” consisting of both academic and nonacademic staff across all divisions of the university. The team, with student support, designed a centralized web-based portal to assist all departments in reporting their individual emissions by feeding data into it.
The university’s Carbon Neutral Project is spearheaded by the Center for Sustainability (CFS), a unit focused on research on sustainability and community outreach. CFS is a faculty-directed organization that supports environmental protection and sustainable development in the country through university-industry linkages and partnerships headed by Perera.
“As graduate students, the carbon footprint calculation exercise has given us the opportunity to gain experience in sustainable environmental practice,” says Apeksha Janashantha, a USJ student who participated in the study. As the sustainability-related job market expands, the skills that the project has provided students who study forestry and environment will become extremely useful in the future, Janashantha tells Mongabay. Students are eager to have the university declared as the island’s first-ever carbon-neutral university, and hopefully, next year’s calculations will be easier, she says.
Perera says the university is aiming to reduce its carbon footprint wherever possible and planning to offset the rest. Making the university’s energy consumption efficient is a priority and is happening through the introduction of solar energy and administrative plans to purchase only energy efficient equipment for the university wherever possible, Perera says.
Managing forest plots
The university manages three forest plots, 145 hectares (358 acres) of lowland tropical rainforest at the Yagirala Forest Reserve in the island’s Western Province, some 400 ha (988 acres) of dry mixed evergreen forest in Wanniyagamma, and another 7 ha (17 acres) of mangrove forest and agroforestry land in Ittapana, all within the same province. Perera says they are carrying out a reforestation program mainly at the Wanniyagamma forest, which is quite disturbed as a habitat. The university plans on using it as a carbon sink.
‘We have experience in auditing the carbon footprints under ISO standards, but auditing the USJ’s carbon footprint has been a unique learning experience,” says Sajeewa Ranasinghe, a manager with the Sustainability Assurance and Advisory Services of the Sustainable Future Group (SFG), which carried out the ISO audit. SFG is a sustainability verification and certification body accredited to verify and validate organizational, project and product-level GHG emissions inventories under ISO 14064-1 and 2 and ISO 14067 in Sri Lanka.
SFG has carried out several carbon footprint audits in Sri Lanka, and a few organizations have already achieved carbon neutrality, says Ranasinghe. “Most of them are apparel companies and they purchase carbon credits from elsewhere to offset their carbon emissions. But the mechanism USJ carries out by offsetting carbon through reforestation by themselves is commendable,” Ranasinghe says.
ISO certification is not only a numbers game, but it also means the processes are being audited to ensure a project’s sustainability, Ranasinghe tells Mongabay.
The university is now calculating its carbon footprint for the year 2020. There were several lockdowns but academic work was carried out virtually. “Though the carbon emission caused by travel was negated during such periods, learning online too has an emission component as the students and lecturers had to consume electricity, which was generated mostly through the burning of fossil fuel, so there is a GHG component in it,” Perera tells Mongabay.
The CFS is currently constructing a green building to house the unit within the university premises. “We make this as a green building and keep track of its carbon footprint through activities and make sure it is environmentally friendly where we reuse the used materials whenever possible, implement water conservation methods, natural lighting and natural ventilation, and also aim to cut down the use of air conditioning to make the building energy efficient,” Perera says.
The carbon footprint management standard or CFM, should not be for just a few institutions on a voluntary basis, says Uchita de Zoysa, a climate activist and a former ministerial adviser on sustainable development. If it is to have significant impact, all large-scale buildings and infrastructure should be required to conduct CFM through national policy and regulations, de Zoysa says. Also, CFM needs to be followed by essential corrective measures prior to going into the next year to be able to qualify for another round of assessment, de Zoysa tells Mongabay.
Banner image of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, one of the leading government-run universities in Sri Lanka, courtesy of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.