Sustainability in higher education

This blog was first published on 30th November 2021 for the Association of University Administrators

Universities across the UK were prominent at COP26.

Our students protested and our academics gave evidence. In the most populous of COPs our universities were there. Never before has a COP meeting been such a circus. To those who were there – well done. You ensured that leaders, politicians and civil servants knew just how important all this is.

We saw Glasgow packed and the Glasgow pact signed but just as the final cards were being played our croupier, Alok Sharma, admitted it nearly all fell apart as China and India played aggressive hands and the pact nearly cracked. The phasing down, as opposed to phasing out, of coal was a significant and defining moment for the conference but also the Paris Agreement.

Whilst China has leaned in to the negotiation and insisted on a phasing down of coal it’s surprise statement to work proactively with the USA caught us all out – but it’s noteworthy the big breakthrough on methane – (cutting methane emissions is a low-hanging fruit because the main sources (oil and gas companies) are easily monitored). The US-led deal could cut global emissions by 30 per cent even though Russia, China and India did not sign up.

In amongst the myriad of commitments announced during COP26 the Department for Education published its draft climate change and sustainability strategy and recognises that schools and universities represent 36% of total UK public sector building emissions.

In announcing the draft strategy the Secretary of State for Education, The Rt Hon Nadhim Zahawi MP, said “Education is critical to fighting climate change. We have both the responsibility and privilege of educating and preparing young people for a changing world – ensuring they are equipped with the right knowledge, understanding and skills to meet their biggest challenge head on”.

But the strategy is light on higher education. It’s a predominantly schools-focused and lacking any clear expectations or signals to universities.

Over the next few months I hope the strategy develops further to recognise the enormous opportunity universities provide for government’s climate change strategy. COP26 showed that universities across the UK are developing new technologies, approaches and techniques to reduce emissions in our urban environments, in agriculture, aviation, land and marine transport, material efficiency, chemistry. Our universities are crucial to understanding not only how to reduce global warming but also how to cope with climate change – adaptation and resilience to future climates is vital. Educating young people and adults throughout their lives is key and enabling society to understand and learn new skills that meet the future green jobs market has to be at the heart of our teaching programmes.

Universities can also show real leadership in how they operate – many have made commitments to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement – and their role as influential players in their towns and cities is never more important as we recover from a global pandemic. Indeed, there is a fantastic opportunity for universities to show real civic leadership together with their local authorities, health trusts and local businesses. There are some great examples out there, including the Universities for Nottingham initiative which my own university has been part of, where by working at scale universities can be a force for good working at scale to make real impact.

I was pleased to see Universities UK publish Confronting the climate emergency: a commitment from UK universities – a strategy that coalesces ambitions to address climate change. 140 universities have committed to climate action and champion the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

We’re seeing universities recognise the important role they want to play in tackling the most pressing of global challenges and it’s no longer a minority sport. It’s time for all facets of our universities to get behind it.

So, what does it mean for our university estates? Without doubt, the challenge of climate change is here right in front of us and we need to respond. We need to:

  • Reduce our contribution to the problem by reducing the amount of energy used from fossil fuels (especially gas). We need to phase out gas fast and move towards renewables in all new construction and refurbishments.
  • Tackle the emissions associated with the consumption of goods and services in our supply chains (which are often 5 or 6 times bigger than our emissions from gas and electricity). This will mean repurposing and retrofitting buildings and protecting the carbon embodied in their structures.
  • Preparing our campuses and supply chains to be more resilient to future climate change.

If we’re going to reduce the carbon impact of our estate, we need to invest heavily and improve glazing and the wider building envelope – walls, roofs and doors as well as the systems that keep the buildings warm or cool. Whilst no one wants high gas prices, the business case for moving to alternatives to gas has never been stronger. I want to see more renewable energy generated on campus and to invest in walking, cycling and public transport as well things like electric vehicle charging points. But how about if a good number of universities came together and invested, collectively, in large scale renewables, such as offshore wind, that would make a big difference. That would be real impact.

Within the UK Higher Education sector every university is already highly engaged on this issue, but the Decarbonising Heat Networks in University Estates reportcarried out by the Association for Decentralised Energy on behalf of the Association (and the Scottish Association) of University Directors of Estates – points to a stark truth. While the UK government has been among the first to establish a clear national target of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, which in turn has encouraged others including local authorities and universities to make their own similar commitments, it has not yet used every lever at its disposal to draw together the required whole-system approach. It urgently needs to do so.

There is a fantastic opportunity for the Government to make inroads to the UK’s carbon emissions by supporting large organisations like universities. For instance natural gas is responsible for around 60% of carbon emissions in the HE sector and considerable barriers remain for universities to move to low carbon alternatives. Whilst amazing work is being carried out across UK HE in everything from climate science to the practical delivery of new energy-efficient technologies, universities need a public policy framework that gives long term confidence in alternatives to gas, the financial resources for infrastructure investment and the cross-sector links into other public or private sector organisations that would facilitate collaborative action, to achieve the 2050 goal, which is now less than 30 years away.

I hope the higher education sector, with its various representative bodies, such as Universities UK and the Russell Group, BUFDG, AUDE and EAUC, can shape the DfE’s strategy; work with Government to show the potential the sector can bring if the right policies and investments are made; and accelerate the transition we need in enabling our graduates to have the skills to tackle this challenge.

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