Russell Group promises action on climate emergency

Despite the announcement, 10 of the 24 Russell Group members have not set net-zero carbon emissions targets

The Russell Group has pledged to “behave sustainably, as institutions and communities in our own right” in a joint statement on the climate crisis.

In the statement, the group of 24 elite universities said: “We don’t claim to be perfect: we know there is more that each of us can do and, as individual institutions and in collaboration with a range of partners, we are seeking to overcome the different hurdles we face.”

Not all the members of the Russell Group have set net-zero carbon emission targets.

Joanna Burton, policy manager at the Russell Group, said universities are faced with “difficult decisions and trade-offs”.

“While targets may vary between universities, all take responsibility for measuring and managing carbon emissions and are working hard to meet their targets,” Ms Burton added.

The university’s statement addresses curricula, research, building efficiency, recycling and reducing usage.

Ms Burton said Russell Group universities were “major employers and a core part of our local communities” and could take the lead by behaving in a more environmentally friendly way. She also said universities’ research and technology could help the global effort to tackle the climate emergency.

The association said business air travel and procurement were the most complex sustainability challenges for universities.

Net-zero carbon emission targets

According to The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC), ten of the 24 Russell Group members have not set a net-zero carbon target for their institutions. When challenged, a spokesperson for the University of Birmingham said the university was working on a Sustainability Roadmap to be published next year but would not be drawn on a net-zero target. A petition was started this year by the university’s Amnesty International society, calling on its vice-chancellor to commit to carbon neutrality.

The University of Liverpool, another university that has not set a net-zero target, said in a statement: “An updated sustainability proposal been reviewed and approved by senior management with a view to introducing specific proposals to reduce plastics and to explore the feasibility of declaring a net-zero carbon campus by 2040.”

Durham, Exeter, Oxford, Queen Mary, Queen’s University Belfast, Sheffield, Southampton and York have also not set zero-carbon targets.

A recent report from staff and students at Exeter recommended the university set a zero-carbon target. Vice-chancellor Prof Sir Steve Smith welcomed the report and said he supported “a good proportion of the goals and recommendations”.

Durham University is similarly consulting recommendations it received earlier this year from working group comprised of staff and students. Prof Colin Bain, the university’s vice-provost (Research), said: “A Task Force is being set up to propose ambitious but realistic carbon reduction targets, which could be implemented in a meaningful and sustainable way, and to draft a Declaration of Climate Emergency. The Task Force will report by June 2020.”

Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kings College London, Leeds, Nottingham, Newcastle, Manchester and UCL have all set carbon neutral targets, ranging between 2028 and 2050.

Climate Commission

In response to the joint statement, EAUC chief executive Iain Patton urged Russell Group institutions to “make clear public net zero emissions targets”. He also called on the universities to join the new Climate Commission, which is due to develop a strategic framework and set ambitious targets for the higher and further education sector. The commission is supported by the EAUC in partnership with the Association of Colleges, GuildHE and Universities UK.

Universities were first set environmental targets by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), with most universities expected to make a 30-40% reduction in 2009 baseline emissions by 2020. This work was not continued by HEFCE’s successor body, the Office for Students.

This year, the government announced the UK would be carbon neutral by 2050.

Even though not all Russell Group members had made commitments to reach net-zero emissions, Ms Burton said: “While some have adopted or are considering a net-zero target, others are taking a different approach such as reducing emissions against a baseline or adopting science-based targets. 

“A wide range of initiatives are already being implemented, from improving building efficiency to sustainable supply-chain management. Through the sustainability network, we aim to work collaboratively to have an even greater impact, including on setting and reaching ambitious targets.”

The Russell Group said its environmental sustainability network was helping members combine spending power to embed sustainability into procurement – often a largest ‘unseen’ cause of university emissions.

Scope 3 emissions – those created from sources universities do not own or control – cover procurement, food supply chains, investments, cloud storage and leased assets.

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