Universities have been better than average at preparing to reduce their carbon emissions, according to a league table released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. But their efforts will not earn them money, as originally planned.
The Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) data show that universities have better scores than other energy-intensive public and private organisations.
But 23 universities still rank joint last - along with 779 other organisations - after failing to meet any of the requirements of the commitment.
In its first year of operation, the CRC does not rank institutions on carbon emissions.
Instead, half of the score is based on the proportion of gas and electricity supplies that are automatically metered, and half on whether they achieve the Carbon Trust Standard, which requires previous, ongoing and future cuts in energy use.
The ranking translates into a sum paid to the Treasury by the organisation. The University of Sussex, for example, which finished 34th out of the 2,013 organisations ranked, will have to pay around £230,000.
Keele University was joint first along with 22 other organisations, including Manchester United Football Club and British American Tobacco, while there were seven universities within the top 100 organisations overall.
Andy Parry, head of operations of estates and development at Keele, said the institution had replaced windows, lighting, boilers and insulation, and introduced metering.
It had also installed solar panels and pumps that heat water using solar energy, and was now looking at large-scale wind power.
The average university score in the CRC table is 1,294 points, compared with an overall average of 1,052. Jules Pretty, pro vice-chancellor for sustainability and resources at the University of Essex, said the results were a "mixed bag", with "quite a lot of universities in equal-last position".
The CRC was originally designed to create a "cap-and-trade" system where universities would have to buy the right to emit carbon, meaning top-ranked organisations would gain money at the expense of those lower down the list.
But in the Comprehensive Spending Review last October, the government announced that revenues from the CRC would go to the Treasury instead.
As a result, Professor Pretty said, "it's become a straight tax. It won't drive behaviour in the way that we hoped."
Mr Parry said that under the original system the university could have earned "quite a healthy payback. But now we view it nearly as a tax."
He said: "While it's annoying, there's still an incentive to save [energy]."
One potential incentive would be varying capital funding on the basis of carbon reduction. A more immediate impetus, Professor Pretty said, was rising energy costs, which have doubled in the past three years to £3 million a year at Essex.
In contrast, the CRC would cost Essex about £230,000 in its first year, he added.
From 2011-12, the CRC will begin to take into account an organisation's change in total carbon emissions and its emissions per pound of turnover. By 2013-14, each university's entire CRC score will be calculated from these factors.