EPFL is engaged to comply with the Swiss government’s climate requirements of cutting energy-related greenhouse gas emissions by 50% (from 2006 levels) by 2030 and becoming carbon neutral by offsetting energy-related emissions (starting in 2020). Further it aims to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement, which Switzerland ratified in 2017.
EPFL aims for Net Zero by 2040. Achieving net zero emissions means removing from the air the same amount of carbon that is released by the operations. EPFL has a number of initiatives in place to develop technology for capturing, using and storing carbon; these include the Solutions4Sustainability initiative and many research projects at the labs. The school intends to serve as a living lab for testing the most promising systems. In reaching net zero, EPFL will work with other ETH Domain organizations through the initiatives Swiss Center of Excellence on Net-Zero Emissions (SCENE) and Speed2Zero. Because new technology will not be enough to get EPFL to net zero, the top priority remains cutting carbon emissions.
The points mentioned below are highlights of EPFL’s climate action, for more details on policies, goals and achievements, please consult the full EPFL Climate & Sustainability Strategy report.
In 1978, following the first oil crisis, EPFL made a visionary decision to install a power plant on the Lausanne campus that draws thermal energy from Lake Geneva. The plant was subsequently renovated so that, in 2022, the campus was entirely oil-free. Today an estimated 54% of consumed energy comes from Lake Geneva, 6% from natural gas and 40% from electrical power. Approximately half of the electrical power comes from renewable sources in Switzerland. However, the campus still emits over 16,000 tons CO2-eq per year, making up about a third of the measured carbon footprint. This is due to the significant CO2 impact of importing fossil fuel-derived electricity into Switzerland in winter.
As the main source of CO2 emissions in 2022, with 38% from academic travel and 12% from commuting, mobility has been identified as a priority for reducing EPFL’s environmental footprint.
Meeting peers and participating in international events is a key element of the research process. It gives scientists the opportunity to share their ideas, build professional networks and boost their visibility. By the same token, students can benefit from exchange programs, study trips and internships abroad. Yet, academic travel is the EPFL’s main source of greenhouse gas emissions, generating the equivalent of around 16,600 tonnes of CO2-eq with over 20,000 flights taken in 2019.
The EPFL Climate and Sustainability Strategy’s objectives aims at a reduction of at least 30% in carbon emissions linked to academic travel by 2030 (ref. 2019), through: 1) a review of EPFL’s travel policy, 2) encouragement of a voluntary reduction in air travel and 3) improved videoconferencing infrastructures.
New business and student travel policy came into force in January 2023 including:
The implementation of these travel guidelines was supported by an awareness campaign on climate impact of air travel.
Since 2003, EPFL has carried out mobility surveys among its students and employees to understand changes in mobility practices, plan transport infrastructure and calculate the environmental impact of commuting. Between 2003 and 2021, and following the introduction of the EPFL Mobility Plan, the results revealed a profound transformation in mobility behaviors, with in particular: 1) an exponential increase in the proportion of walking (from 4% to 16%) and cycling (from 13% to 26%), among both students and staff, 2) a sharp reduction in the use of individual motorized transport (from 34% to 18%), particularly among staff.
Diagnostic studies have been carried out on various commuting topics, such as:
There are currently around 16,000 people in the EPFL community, and the food they consume on campus accounts for about 13% of total carbon emissions (>6,000 tons CO2-eq in 2019). Half of these emissions derive from meat products, even though these products make up less than 15% of overall food purchases. EPFL rolled out an ambitious sustainable food-services strategy in 2019 that aims to dramatically change food consumption on campus, emphasizing meals made from fresh, local and seasonal products and dishes that are tasty, nutritionally balanced, affordable (especially for students) and all with the lowest possible environmental impact.
As a technology school, the EPFL is particularly sensitive to the environmental impact of its IT systems. This impact stems not only from greenhouse gas emissions but also from the use of natural resources such as energy, water and rare-earth minerals. Roughly 10% of EPFL’s carbon footprint in 2019 came from the manufacture of IT equipment including computers, screens and tablets, while another 4% (or 6,800 tons CO2-eq) came from IT-related power use. Aware of its ever-growing digital needs, both for teaching and research, EPFL is committed to implementing an exemplary Sustainable IT Strategy.
The Lausanne campus (buildings, pathways, circulation, integration of sculptures, planting of greenery) was designed in the 70s as a “Gesamtkunstwerk” (total work of art), i.e. in the manner of a landscape intended as an autonomous microcosm. However, as new buildings have been constructed to accommodate the growth of the campus, the proportion of mineralised surfaces has increased to the detriment of permeable and vegetated surfaces.
A masterplan for mobility and public spaces is currently being drawn up, with the goal to creating a more inclusive, accessible and sustainable campus. It will aim to integrate undeveloped public spaces into plans for major construction projects, densification and infrastructure renovation, with the ambition of creating outdoor spaces that are more welcoming, peaceful and resilient in the face of climate change.
EPFL’s procurement policy will follow a holistic, circular-economy approach that includes questioning needs, extending the lifespan of equipment and recovering waste. EPFL currently estimates that adding purchased products and services to measured carbon emissions (excluding IT-, food-, and travel-related emissions, which are already accounted for) would double its carbon footprint. Purchasing criteria – whether for selecting suppliers or specific products and services – will systematically incorporate social, environmental, and economic factors and consider the entire life cycle of the product or service in question. This entails forming partnerships with suppliers who share EPFL’s vision, to guide the community towards sustainable practices.
2050Today’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions measurement methodology follows the GHG Protocol. The Protocol provides standards and guidance for organizations to measure and manage climate-warming emissions. It was created in 1998 through a partnership between the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).
According to the GHG Protocol, the distribution of emissions is done by scopes:
Scope 1 represents direct emissions linked to the consumption of fossil fuels.
Scope 2 represents indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the reporting company.
Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain (i.e. purchased good or services, business travel, employee commuting).
The 2050Today carbon footprint takes into account the reported emissions generated by the activities of the institution over one year and is divided by categories:
Energy and water
It takes into account the amount of the consumed electricity produced and purchased by the institution. The energy consumed to heat and/or cool the institution’s building area and the consumed water are included as well.
It takes into consideration business travels and commuting (on a survey basis).
The CO2 impact of food includes the catering of the institution and individual consumption (on a survey basis) during working hours.
The perimeter of purchased goods is set to a list of new office equipment, new mobility equipment (vehicles) and construction materials.
The perimeter of the waste inventory is set to waste production from facilities and internal operations of the institution
It has to be noted that the collected data of the 2050Today members resulting in each carbon footprint are not yet fully standardized and might not be entirely complete. Data collection is being progressively harmonized and improved. Therefore, direct comparisons between tCO2 / employee among institutions – be it in general or per sector – are not yet possible nor relevant.
To ensure the reliability, the accuracy and a recurrent updating of the carbon footprint assessment, 2050Today is advised by an international Carbon Footprint Scientific Committee.