Student Reports University of Leicester Overshoots Carbon Emission ‘Fair Share’ – Full Report

This is the full report initially put together by Karli Wagener for the University of Leicester’s Social Impact Team.


For you to fully understand what a fair share is and what the calculated date means for the university, you need to know a few basic scientific ideas.

To begin, why is everyone talking about carbon when discussing climate change? What distinguishes the current climate change from previous ones? To understand this, we must examine how previous climate changes occurred.

You may have heard of Milutin Milankovitch, a Serbian astrophysicist – but, if you haven’t, he was a scientist who developed some of the most important theories relating to the Earth’s motions and long-term climate change. Eccentricity, Tilt, and Precession are the three cycles described by his theory, which are now known as the Milankovitch Cycles.

Eccentricity is a term that describes the shape of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. That orbit shifts from a circle to an oval and back again over time. When the Earth orbits the sun in an oval shape, it receives less energy and thus becomes colder. Every 100,000 years, the eccentricity changes.

The tilt describes the Earth’s angle and how it changes over time. The Earth is currently at a 23.5° angle, but this can change over a 41,000-year period to a minimum of 22.5° and a maximum of 24.5°. The angle of the sun’s energy hitting the Earth changes as the tilt changes, influencing how much energy hits where and thus changing the climate.

Precession, also known as ‘the wobble,’ describes how the orientation of the Earth’s axis changes during rotation. The axis is currently aligned with the North Star, but in 13,000 years it will have shifted to Vega (also a star). Over a 26,000-year period, the wobble changes.

When those cycles are compared to the current climate change, it is clear that the timing of global warming is much faster than in the past. Because none of these cycles has accelerated, the current warming must be due to something else. Svante Arrhenius was the first scientist to claim that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a major cause of climate change in 1896. Many scientists have since confirmed his theory, and we can see a positive correlation between the steady increase in CO2 and the increase in global warming.

We can see the effects of climate change in real time, such as more frequent extreme weather events, melting ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels, and more. Looking at the news over the last few years, it is clear that we are now living through those changes.

To combat climate change, a global approach is required, which is what the yearly Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings aim to achieve. Many countries signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, pledging to keep global warming to less than 2° Celsius, and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement requires countries to achieve “Net Zero” emissions by 2050.

Net Zero describes the point at which the amount of Greenhouse Gasses (GHGs) put into the air is the same as the amount taken out, so there is no net change. Increasing carbon sequestration and storage (through offsetting for example) while lowering carbon emissions will help achieve the goal.

Perhaps you’ve heard of ‘Real Zero’ – the point at which all anthropogenic (man-made) greenhouse gas emissions (AGHGE), including historic ones, have been completely eliminated. To achieve Real Zero, we must completely phase out the use of fossil fuels in favour of 100% renewable energy sources.

It is widely regarded as a more ambitious climate change mitigation strategy because it calls for the total eradication of all AGHGEs, rather than simply achieving a balance between emissions and removals, and it advocates for a global transition to a zero-carbon economy. As a result, in an ideal world, we would strive for Real Zero rather than Net Zero, but given our current path to failure in achieving Net Zero, this ambitious path will need to be revisited in the future.

To reduce GHG emissions, you must first account for them. To accomplish this, emissions have been divided into three categories:

  • Scope 1: Refers to an organisation’s direct greenhouse gas emissions. This includes emissions from organisation-owned vehicles as well as emissions from the use of gas, oil, and biomass.
  • Scope 2: Looks at the emissions made when energy is produced or when an organisation buys cooling, heating, or steam for its own use. Electricity is another Scope 2 example.
  • Scope 3: Includes all indirect emissions from a reporting entity that don’t fall under Scope 2. These are emissions caused by an organisation’s activity that originate from sources not owned or controlled by the organisation. Scope 3 emissions include the transportation of purchased fuels, the manufacturing of purchased commodities, and employee commuter travel.

To achieve net zero, you must consider scopes 1 and 2 and reduce emissions as much as possible.

We cannot currently achieve net zero by simply reducing carbon emissions because most human activities emit carbon. As a result, methods for capturing and storing carbon are required. The Oxford Offsetting Principles, which are recognised as the industry standard for carbon offsetting, provide a framework for evaluating the quality and efficacy of carbon offset projects.

The following are critical components of credible carbon offset strategies:

  • Before anything else, first reduce emissions, use high-quality compensation and review the strategy regularly, use best practices when expanding the strategy
  • Shift from carbon reduction towards carbon removal and storage (offsetting)
  • Shift to high-quality long-lived storage to reduce the risk of reversal (this is explained below)
  • Amend strategy with state-of-the-art research and development of carbon neutrality technology

Carbon Capture and Storage Methods (offsetting) can be divided into two groups: short-lived, under which easily reversible offsets fall, and long-lived, which describes more ‘secure’ offsets, which are a lot harder to reverse. Short-lived carbon storage, what we are mainly doing right now, includes reforestation. It is quite effective, but easily reversible.

Long-lived carbon storage can happen through the remineralisation of carbon. The CarbFix project in Iceland is an example of this, in which carbon is injected into lava and then cools and solidifies. There are few other examples at the moment because the technology is still lacking, but it will be vital in the coming years to develop this, as it is instrumental in achieving net and possibly even real zero.

Another way for a company to reduce its carbon footprint is through carbon inset. Insetting is defined as a collaboration or investment in an emission-reducing activity that takes place within an organisation’s sphere of influence or interest, where the GHG reductions are acknowledged to have been achieved through partnerships and mutual benefit is realised. This type of behaviour could be viewed as mutually beneficial.

Now, what is a Fair Share?

According to the fair share principle, each individual and country contributes an appropriate amount to reducing emissions based on their ability to do so. For example, wealthier countries must bear a greater share of the responsibility for reducing global emissions than developing countries. This is because they have historically been the source of more greenhouse gas emissions and currently have higher levels of emissions per capita. This is commonly known as the “polluter pays” principle, which states that those who cause pollution should bear the costs associated with it as well. The fair share quota is expected to begin in 2015, with a maximum of approximately 391 million tonnes (Mt) CO2 for the whole planet, or 83 tCO2 per capita (based on a specific interpretation of global equity).

The concept of “burden sharing” or “effort sharing” has long been debated and was a key discussion during COP 21. Brazil’s proposal in 1977 to assign mitigation targets to developed countries based on their historical contributions to climate change spawned a new field of study known as climate change mitigation research. The most important discovery in the field is that policy, as well as scientifically related methodologies, must be implemented.

Despite this, the Global Carbon Project discovered that the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the world’s industries and fossil fuels in 2019 reached a new all-time high of 37.1 billion tonnes. This represents a significant increase over previous years’ levels, emphasising the critical need for immediate action to reduce emissions.

Fair Share and Leicester

I used the Tyndall Centre’s Report on Leicester City’s Fair Share to calculate the University of Leicester’s fair share. Leicester City’s fair share of CO2e for 2020-2100 is 8.5 MtCO2e. The report also recommends a minimum reduction rate of 12.8% to stay within the agreed-upon global temperature target. If implemented, 95% of the fair share budget will be used by 2042, leaving the remaining 5% of CO2e to decrease at a low level until 2100. According to the report, if emissions remained constant from 2017, the entire fair share of CO2e would be consumed by 2022.

Figure 1 – Tyndall Centre, Leicester Fair Share

I used the following method to calculate the University’s Fair Share:

  • Firstly, I calculated a percentage of all of Leicester’s businesses’ emissions by looking at scope 1 and 2 emissions for 2018 and took that percentage off the full Leicester Fair share to eliminate household emissions.
  • The university was modelled as a business for the second calculation, and staff numbers were used. Please keep in mind that if you want more accurate results, you should include more variables, such as total turnover, income, number of customers, and so on.
  • Calculate a percentage by comparing the number of UoL’s employees to the total number of employees in the city. Repeat this process if you’re using more factors to compare.
  • Finally, add up all of the percentages and divide them by the number of factors you used to calculate the average.
  • This percentage can then be used to calculate how much of the Business sector’s Fair Share is for the business for which you are looking for the fair share.

You can see how this worked out in the case of the University of Leicester below:

After figuring out what the fair share was, I used university reports and predictions to figure out what the annual emissions have been since 2018. On the graph below, the blue line shows real data, while the dotted line shows what people think will happen. I added them up to determine how many years’ worth of emissions the Fair Share budget could handle.

By doing so, I determined that our University’s Fair Share overshoot date was February 26, 2023.

This date has now passed. So what do we do? Are we doomed?

If you read carefully, you might have guessed my answer. Long-lived carbon storage, I believe, may be the solution to this problem. We can capture historical carbon emissions, remineralise them, and thus reverse the damage we have done. For this to happen, investment in long-lived carbon storage research needs to happen, as well as carbon taxing. Sadly, money is the only language humanity seems to understand.

Perhaps you have other suggestions for reducing the carbon already emitted?

Feel free to reach out to me with your ideas; I’m keen to see what solutions other people can come up with based on their knowledge and experience. The fact is, there is not just one solution but this needs a multifaceted approach with all countries, businesses, and people pulling together to allow ourselves, coming generations and all other life forms a future on this planet.

I would once again like to thank Professor Susan Page, my dissertation supervisor for her belief in me and my abilities. I’d also like to thank Dr. Sandra Lee and Emma Kemp for providing me with data and talking through my method ideas and concepts around this topic.

Karli Wagener is a third-year BSc Geography (with a year in industry) student. Originally moving to England in 2015 for a gap year to learn English, she decided to stay for A-Levels and University. During her year in industry, she worked as the Students’ Union’s Wellbeing Officer (2020-2022) and took a sabbatical year to finish her projects and campaigns impacted by COVID-19. She has been a sexual violence activist since 2018 and achieved changes at University of Leicester with a national impact, for which she received the Students’ Union ‘Social Impact Award’ in 2019. Karli works as a freelance photographer and her interests include wellbeing, carbon reduction, sustainability, volleyball, and cats. Find her on LinkedIn @Karli Wagener, Twitter, and Instagram @karliwgr (personal) @karlisnaps (photography)

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