HomeLow carbon futureUniversities are the source of climate science but many aren’t leading by example

Universities are the source of climate science but many aren’t leading by example

This post is by Ellie Bothwell, rankings editor at Times Higher Education.

Through decades of academic research, universities have been at the forefront of tracking the changing climate of the planet and warning humankind of the potential repercussions of failing to act. But a recent report from Times Higher Education looked at the performance of 566 universities that have submitted data against the climate action Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 13) and it makes stark reading.

Only half of universities with climate targets consider their indirect emissions
Eighty per cent of university leaders surveyed by THE say pursuit of the SDGs informs how their institution operates. But only just over half of institutions participating in our climate action ranking have a target to reach net zero emissions. And only half of those include in their target the indirect emissions associated with their institutional activities, such as the goods and services they purchase or business travel.

These indirect emissions, known as scope 3 emissions, are probably the most important to measure and reduce for higher education institutions, given that academics frequently flying abroad to conferences and international students flying to and from host countries should arguably be included in this category. According to the COP26 Universities Network, in the UK alone student flights account for 18 per cent of further and higher education’s emissions, with academic flights contributing a further four per cent. But, even among universities that say they measure their scope 3 emissions, it seems that the vast majority do not factor international student travel into their calculations.

Universities are critical sources of ideas on climate action
Through research, teaching and outreach, higher education institutions continue to be critical players in the race to net zero emissions and will have a transformational impact on society, regardless of their own operations. Universities work with governments and corporations to help them understand and control their emissions and, ultimately, hit their decarbonisation goals through technological innovation and by enhancing scientific understanding of the issue. Institutions are also tasked with educating the leaders of tomorrow about environmental sustainability and how to achieve it, so the next generation can take better care of our planet. They are a critical cog in the global machine when it comes to solving humanity’s greatest challenges.

But universities are also large organisations with significant carbon footprints. They should lead by example, especially when many have the benefit of climate expertise at their fingertips, to ensure credibility among their students and to support local climate action. They are often the biggest employers in an area and may also, therefore, be the greatest local carbon emitter.

The best way for higher education bodies to lead will be through sector-wide collaboration. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol – a global standard, developed by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development – informs organisations about how to measure, manage and report their carbon emissions. This would be an excellent place for universities to start, but a sector specific framework, like the one proposed by the EAUC, the UK’s Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, would also ensure that activities unique to higher education, like international student travel, are always included in carbon accounting.

There are some good examples of universities taking the lead
Case studies in THE’s report show there is space for many different approaches to the transition to net zero, depending on an institution’s mission and values.

For example, Simon Fraser University in Canada has looked at carrying out its sustainability work in a way that contributes to other goals, such as indigenous reconciliation goals, equity, diversity and inclusion, and anti-racism projects. As well as ensuring that it is not redesigning solutions that compound justice issues, the university says this approach has contributed to the success of its sustainability work because new and diverse voices, who may not otherwise be environmental advocates, are involved in committee meetings and working group sessions and are helping to guide the plan’s implementation.

Meanwhile, the Australian National University’s founding story and mission has driven its ambitious Below Zero Initiative. It was founded in 1946, in the spirit of post-war optimism, with the role of helping to realise Australia’s potential as the world recovered from a global crisis. As such, its mission has a strong focus on societal transformation and national and regional responsibilities.

THE’s Impact Rankings allow institutions to measure and report on their progress, including their commitments, and serve as a tool to identify potential partners to help the whole higher education sector work together, to make sure it doesn’t just let us know about climate change but also sets the example for others to follow in solving it.

You can download the full report from the Times Higher Education website.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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