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Published on:
Monday 29 April 2024

Wolfson College is the UK’s first Zero Carbon Higher Education Institution

The built environment is a major contributor to the climate emergency, accounting for 40% of worldwide carbon emissions. Recognising our duty to act, Wolfson College has taken unprecedented steps to eliminate carbon emissions from our estate. After two years of retrofitting works, we are proud to have become the first Higher Education Institution in the UK to have achieved net zero. While many other universities and HEIs in the UK have pledged to reach net zero by 2030, Wolfson has made this a reality today, proving that historic estates can adapt to the demands of the present.

Scope 1 and 2

Wolfson’s historic estate was designed by architects Powell & Moya and completed in 1974. While cutting-edge for their day, our buildings were not designed with sustainability in mind. Wolfson’s scale and massive elevations of single glazing made it one of the least energy efficient estates within the University of Oxford.

Recognising our duty to decarbonise, Wolfson’s long-term commitment to reducing the climate impact of the College began in 2010 with the installation of solar panels and our first heat pump. Seeing the growing urgency of the climate crisis, in 2020 the College voted to accelerate the project and embarked on massive retrofitting works to eliminate carbon emissions completely, whether these derived from fossil fuels we burn ourselves (‘Scope 1 emissions’, e.g., from burning gas for heating) or from fuels burned on our behalf (‘Scope 2 emissions’, e.g., from electricity production).

We have now achieved this incredibly ambitious milestone in time for the 50th anniversary of our move to our current site. Working with Original Field Architects, engineers Max Fordham LLP and main contractors Benfield and Loxley, the final heat pump was installed in October 2023, completing our electrification of the Wolfson estate. Achieving such a radical change on such a short schedule was no mean feat and is projected to save more than 24,000 tonnes of CO2 over the next 20 years.

Wolfson College / John Cairns

Technology and Innovation

Wolfson has managed to eliminate Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions without the use of carbon offsetting thanks to ground-breaking engineering and the deployment of cutting-edge technologies, working with engineers Max Fordham LLP.

The College now boasts a first-of-its-kind heating system. Whereas our buildings were once kept warm by traditional gas boilers, Wolfson now enjoys zero carbon, automated climate control. Our main estate is heated by seven air source heat pumps forming a district supply network – the first of its kind in the UK. Wolfson’s successful installation of this experimental system, intended as a test case, proves to councils and estate managers that it is possible to supply sustainable heating to multi-building complexes. Further heat pumps supply our offsite properties and annexes.

We have also worked to reduce heat loss from across our site, replacing approximately 1000 panes of glass with high tech CUin glass across all building for better heat retention, cutting heat losses by up to 92%.

Our decarbonisation work has so far won multiple awards, including the Vice Chancellor’s Environmental Sustainability Award, the OxProp Fest sustainability award, and an Oxford Preservation Trust Award.

40% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions are linked to the built environment. Retrofitting old buildings may seem unglamorous, but it is the single most essential element in a successful energy transition in the UK. So, at Wolfson College, Oxford we took the difficult decision to transform our Grade II buildings without changing their look, turning them from gas-guzzlers into zero carbon homes and offices.

“It has been a disruptive process, as any major change must be, but we’re delighted with our new environment. As the home to hundreds of students who will be inheriting this world, we wanted to show that it is possible, through an act of will, to turn the corner in the climate emergency.”

– Sir Tim Hitchens, President of Wolfson College.
Wolfson President Sir Tim Hitchens and Sara Murray, Managing Director of Benfield and Loxley

Our Ongoing Commitment

Wolfson has led the way on eliminating Scope 1 and 2 emissions, but we recognise our ongoing work relies on supply chains that extend far beyond the College. While our suppliers work to reduce their climate impact, and until they too reach net zero, Wolfson is investing in on-site programmes to mitigate the impact of our remaining, indirect ‘Scope 3’ emissions in every department. We have invested in electric transport, saving 8600kg of CO2 each year, and host e-scooter and bike hire schemes on site for staff and students. We are investing in increased photovoltaic capacity and battery storage. We have partnered with bicycle couriers in Oxford to provide last-mile delivery for online orders delivered to the College, taking vehicles off the city’s busy roads. And our kitchens have begun growing food on site for use in our sustainable menus, and our print publications are produced by one of the most environmentally-friendly printers in the world. We continue to reduce our climate impact wherever possible by changing our working practices, reviewing our suppliers and educating our community.

Wolfson was founded in 1966 to combine modern, progressive values with academic excellence, providing research facilities and accommodation for students, academics and, uniquely, their families, as part of a wider mission to make postgraduate research accessible to a wider constituency. We are delighted to have continued that legacy by becoming the first zero carbon Higher Education Institution in the United Kingdom.