Sustainability in HE: Greta expectations

British universities are squaring up to the defining crisis of our age to fully commit to environmental sustainability. So what are our finest minds doing in the race to achieve net-zero carbon emissions on campus and beyond? Quite a lot… and not enough, experts on the campus frontlines, tell Cris Warren

For Dickens’ Pip, “suffering was stronger than all other teaching”. But then, he wasn’t paying ten grand a year for the privilege. On a suffering planet, today’s student cohort are climate-protest natives with the passion, voice and consumer clout to chose where they get their teaching. Some in the sector refer to it as the ‘Greta Effect’ – but it’s no fad.

“Students these days have a massive social conscience,” Deborah Green, CEO of the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association (Ucisa), told the Talking Higher Ed panel earlier this month. “They are truly citizens of the world and they expect us to be exemplars. Those universities that embrace that, and don’t simply use it as marketing but really live the ethics of sustainability, accessibility, inclusion and engagement, will fare extremely well.”

That’s not news to Dr Alex Ryan, director of sustainability at the University Of Gloucestershire. UoG made environmental sustainability a core curriculum and cultural tenet over a decade ago. Today it’s widely regarded, and applauded, as Britain’s greenest university.

University of Gloucestershire


“Students today don’t want greenwash. They’ve been walking out of their schools and taking to the streets, they know very well what needs to be done and they’re looking at universities that can teach them how to do it – in the classroom and by example,” she said.

No matter the degree course, UoG’s sustainability strategy is a part of it, so that graduates are tooled up to “make that difference in every sector, facet of life, they move on to”.

Ryan – who if you mixed and bottled her proactivity and enthusiasm you’ll have solved the search for an alternative energy source – fizzes through a glitchy Zoom connection: “We always pledged that we’d make sustainability a formal corporate strategic commitment. In other words, we got it in the main university strategy. It wouldn’t be a little activity that happened on the side – doing a little bit of corporate social responsibility and fiddling about washing some bottles and changing some light bulbs, we’d take it very seriously and get it enshrined into the policies and practices from the top down.”

“Students these days have a massive social conscience”  – Deborah Green, Ucisa

One of the secrets to their success was to convince the upper echelons of the university that saving the planet can also mean saving money and, in her words, “putting bums on seats” – making them attractive to new student cohorts with degrees that have value in the careers market of today.

“We had to push really hard to demonstrate the business benefits. That could be anything from financial cost savings on environmental efficiencies or netting off possible future carbon taxes. But equally there can be value-added business benefits – we are putting graduates out into the world with a different skill set because sustainability is embedded into all the courses, we’re giving graduates an edge in what is a really difficult job market. It’s not just a cursory added-on lecture, where we’ll talk about sustainable development goals, it’s focused on how, whatever sector they end up in, they can really make a difference to those industries’ sustainable practices.”

It’s encouraging that universities across the UK are announcing their intentions to emit zero-carbon, many with a deadline of 2030. While you can’t expect individual, rival institutions to all sing from the same hymn sheet, you might hope you could get them in concert.

EAUC has insisted students be brought into universities’ sustainability missions


That was the thinking behind the recent formation of the Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education, a partnership between Universities UK (UUK), The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), GuildHE and the Association of Colleges (AoC), says Iain Patton, chief exec of EAUC:
“We recognised that we needed to bring the entire sector together, from the big research universities, to specialised colleges – urban and rural based – to collaborate and convene and make a collective agreement that universities have a critical role to play in addressing the emergency.”

The commission is urgently working on common definitions and methodologies to nail down a pledge to achieve real net-zero.

“An absolute commitment, says ‘Right, regardless of future growth of this university, our absolute institution-wide carbon emission will will drop by X per cent’” – Iain Patton, EAUC

“Some universities are making public commitments – which is great – but they’re actually relative commitments. So as the university grows, so too can their emissions grow in proportion. An absolute commitment, says ‘Right, regardless of future growth of this university, our absolute institution-wide carbon emission will will drop by X per cent.’”

Critically, EAUC insisted students be brought into the mix and have an equal voice. “It’s students that have got this onto the agenda and credit to them.

It’s a powerful statement that this is a co-development between our sector institutions and students. We’ve now, so far, brought in 150 other sector bodies, government agencies, etc, into the dialogue and it’s been really encouraging to establish an ownership of the agenda.”

The agenda, of course, being the pledge to bring the carbon emissions of the UK’s universities to zero. On the one hand, it’s moving in the right direction with real, green, infrastructural changes under way. But there’s a hard path ahead and what some might see as a shortcut is really a road to nowhere.

Carbon offsetting, if done right, can contribute to net-zero strategies. But, says Patton, it’s a misleadingly simple option. And it’s easily fudged.

Solar panels


“It’s very tempting, especially in the early stages of a university’s climate ambitions, to go for offsetting. Anyone can throw a bit of money at a tree-planting project. But will those trees actually be there in 20 years time? It probably takes 20 years for them to actually absorb the carbon that you’re attempting to offset now.”

The Climate Commission collectively agreed that offsetting is valid and important, but it’s all about where it comes in the process of decarbonisation, says Iain, otherwise the economics start to resemble the old ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ model.

The commission urges that universities get their house in order and reduce their emissions directly – not just buy their way out of the crisis.

“It can’t be something that you do in the first instance, we’ve got to go through the hierarchy of reducing carbon production in the first instance and generating renewables on site and energy efficiency in your buildings,” says Iain Patton.

“At the end of the line you will still have a residual amount of emissions and then, yes, it can be appropriate to offset. But offsetting can be problematic.”

Alex Ryan also has concerns that there might be some lip service in this area. Chiming with Iain, she thinks the question to be asked around the climate emergency and net zero proclamations gathering pace on campuses is, “Are you really going to do it by driving emissions down or are you just going to pay a massive carbon offsetting bill – it’s not the same thing. Because, of course, it’s easy to say that right now, especially if you know that you won’t be in your job in five years’ time and you don’t even know who the execs in your university will be and whether they’ll actually foot the bill in five to 10 years’ time.”

Catering on campus produces a huge amount of emissions

Umesh Desai, director of estates and facilities at De Montfort University Leicester, applauds the strides being taken nationwide towards net zero. He has a question, though. When is reducing carbon emissions on campus not reducing carbon emissions everywhere else?

“Most universities have got better buildings and facilities. So if we just measure the university itself, yes, there will be positive gains,” says Umesh.

“But while students and staff are working from home, during the lockdowns – and, as is likely, in a future model – they’ll be in a mixed bag of environments. They’ll be using electricity, they’ll be using the heating, individually.

“If you include all that, does that net calculation count against net-zero? I think it’s still early days, certainly from my own point of view. I don’t think we’ve actually fixed on what net-zero as a ratio really means. I think we need to understand the devil hiding in the details.”

The road to net-zero is bumpier still when you take into account Scope 3 reporting – or rather, the lack of it – those emissions pumped out by food-supply chains, air travel, bought-in electricity, off-site cloud storage sites, etc.

Food and flights are the biggies when it comes to pumping out emissions; in the de-carbonisation stakes they’re hard to tackle and few universities have systems in place to account for their use when they file their carbon-use reports.

The path to net-zero can be strewn with hurdles

Long-distance travel – from sending staff to conferences and secondments, to the continental commutes of lucrative overseas students – and catering on campus, especially meat products and non-seasonal foods, create equal huge amounts of emissions.

“You know, Scope 3 can amount to up to 80% of some universities’ total emissions,” says Iain Patton. “It’s a very urgent matter that we’ve been raising awareness of for a couple of years.

“We’ve very recently updated and relaunched our Scope 3 emissions tool for the education sector – called the HESCET Tool and it’s imperative that the sector takes note.”

Dr Claire Hoolohan of The University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), agrees that Scope 3 “has been a bit of a blind spot up to now. If universities really want to live up to their carbon-neutral pledges, they need to quickly start tackling the issue, sector wide.”

In a paper, recently published in ‘Climate Policy’, CAST researchers pored over the publicly available carbon management plans, annual reports, travel plans and sustainable food policies of 66 British universities to investigate their strategies on long-haul travel and campus catering.

Rather than a unified way of recording Scope 3 emissions, each university has its own methods and practices.

Dr Hoolohan, lead author of the study, says it wasn’t much of a surprise to find these two areas were often under-accounted for. It’s not that universities are cooking the books, they’re just not writing the recipes down.

Wind power

“Collecting data for food and travel emissions, and continuing to monitor it, is just so incredibly labour-intensive and costly, and the data ages as soon as you change a supplier.

“Data collection gets better all the time, and one day soon, hopefully, there will be a standardised kind of checklist that would make recording those emissions a universal.”

Right now, though, Dr Hoolohan, like Iain Patton, thinks the best action would be to acknowledge that zero-carbon pledges are empty without tackling Scope 3 emissions, and get on with slashing them.

“We know we need to reduce the amount of flights that are taken – not per student or per member of staff, but outright and absolute; we know we need to reduce the amount of meat being consumed on campus, favour seasonal and vegan or vegetarian foods on the menus and reduce waste.”

If universities start to address these issues with vigour, Hoolohan is looking forward to counterintuitive results. “What we want to see in five years’ time is reporting that looks like emissions have increased. But actually they won’t have gone up, it will mean that the quantification process, the accounting, will have improved.”

You can call it the ‘Greta Effect’ if you want – but universities should take note. These will be the results that make the decision for future students planning where to invest their education.

You might also like: Global HE leaders commit to climate change action

The sustainability stress test

Leave a Reply

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?