Aim for net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, universities told

A report from EAUC, Universities UK, Guild HE and the Association of Colleges encourages the higher education sector to set ambitious targets

Universities should declare a climate emergency, and set “challenging targets” to reach net-zero emissions by 2030, or 2050 at the latest, according to a report from senior higher education leaders.

The report recommends universities conduct root and branch reviews of operations, curriculums and investments to address their sustainability responsibilities, and review the challenges of reducing carbon emissions while recruiting growing numbers of international students.

The recommendations come from a new report for senior management teams and university governors – Climate Action Toolkit for the Higher Education Sector – by the Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education, a partnership between Universities UK (UUK), EAUC, GuildHE and the Association of Colleges (AoC).

The proposals, announced yesterday at a specially convened virtual UUK conference, aim to galvanise sector-wide action.

Among them are the recommendation that senior leaders “review opportunities and challenges in aligning international student recruitment” alongside commitments to reduce air travel. Increasing international student recruitment is enshrined in the government’s strategy for higher education, and overseas learners are a crucial contributor to institutional fiscal sustainability.

The toolkit encourages senior leaders and governors to take a significant role in promoting and galvanising change. Boards and vice-chancellors should appoint a “sustainability champion” to senior management and governor level, front media engagement, “publicly acknowledge” the inequality the climate crisis will create and produce an annual sustainability report to embed accountability.

The report also recommends that universities publish divestment strategies and examine links between pension funds and fossil fuel companies.

Universities should aim to “account for a broad range of scope 3” emissions – those pollutants released off-campus but as a result of a universities operations, like travel, procurement and off-site cloud storage sites – in its carbon reduction strategies. In order to reach net-zero emissions by 2030 – or 2050 at the very latest – universities should switch to zero-carbon energy suppliers and consider on-site renewable energy, carbon capture and battery storage.

To reduce scope 3 emissions, the report advocates reducing air travel and commuting, promoting “circular economy” suppliers, and lobbying catering services to procure local, ethical and sustainable food. Universities with spare land could even consider growing their food, the report adds.

The toolkit also recommends aligning research priorities with sustainable targets and reviewing curriculums to re-focus on sustainability.

Working with students’ unions in all aspects of sustainability – and seeking collaboration with disadvantaged and marginalised students – is also strongly recommended.

Read more: Sustainability Leadership Scorecard: record number of universities seek award

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