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Australian National University commits to ‘below zero’ carbon emissions by 2030

The Australian National University has become the first university in the country to commit to reducing carbon emissions to below zero by 2030.

The move is part of what the ANU is calling its Below Zero Initiative, aimed at setting a leadership example in taking action on climate change.

ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said the university has also committed to net-zero emissions by 2025 as a stepping stone.

“Climate change is already here. The past decade includes nine of the 10 hottest years on record around the world — 2019 was Australia’s hottest year ever,” Professor Schmidt said.

“Achieving below zero is ambitious and it will involve big changes to the way we do things — but as the national university, we must show leadership in driving a societal transformation to address climate change.”

The ANU is only the second in the world to announce a below zero emissions strategy, after a university in Finland.

Brian Schmidt
Vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt says the ANU has an obligation to be a leader in addressing climate change.

ANU promises to achieve target through emissions reduction, not purchasing offsets

The ANU estimates it currently produces more than 55,000 tonnes of CO2 in a typical year, primarily through work travel and natural gas use.

Director of the university’s Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions Professor Mark Howden said the ANU intended to meet the target by fully transitioning off gas and cutting business travel and waste.

“Simple things like making [the ANU’s] buildings more energy efficient, less leaky in terms of losing heat or gaining cold depending on the season, replacing gas heaters with electric heaters, ensuring the building usage is appropriate; not cooling or heating or lighting rooms that aren’t being used,” Professor Howden said.

“In terms of transport emissions, we’re moving away from our fossil fuel-based vehicles into electric vehicles and in terms of work travel we’re cutting down on that as much as possible.”

Looking up to a man standing in the glaring sun, Canberra Australia
Institute for Climate director Mark Howden says work travel and natural gas are the primary sources of the ANU’s carbon emissions.(

Supplied: ANU

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The below zero plan would then go a step further through carbon sequestration measures, becoming a “carbon sink”.

The university acknowledges that will require the development of carbon removal or negative emissions technologies.

And making its nine-year target even more ambitious is a promise by the ANU to phase out purchasing carbon offsets to meet its 2030 goal.

“It certainly is a stretch target,” Professor Howden said.

“But what we see repeatedly coming from the science is that we haven’t had much time to act— we do need to make very significant reductions right now if we’re going to avoid the sorts of climate futures we don’t want.”

ANU remains financier of fossil fuel industries

The university faced criticism in 2014 from a number of parties, including then federal education minister Christopher Pyne, after it announced a plan to divest itself of shares in seven resource and mining companies including Santos and Iluka Resources in a move toward more socially responsible investments.

While it has not committed to fully divesting from fossil fuels, the ANU is working towards reducing the “carbon intensity” of its $1.5 billion portfolio.

In 2019 the ANU’s investments were 56 per cent less carbon intensive than benchmark investors such as the ASX200, according to its socially responsible investment report.

That same report showed the ANU financed more than 24,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions through its infrastructure holdings, almost half of that coming from the Kwinana power station in Western Australia.

Professor Howden said the university looks at investments from a “risk management” perspective.

“Climate change is one of those risks that needed to be managed,” Professor Howden said.

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