UK universities to be net zero by 2050

Universities UK has announced that 140 institutions have made a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – but warn the pledge is dependent on secure long-term government funding

UK universities have pledged to reduce greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050 – but have done so with a warning to governments across the UK to protect research and teaching budgets from cuts.

Universities UK, representing 140 higher education providers, has announced that all its members hope to become zero-carbon by the middle of the century – and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels.

The “climate emergency” declaration accompanied a plea to those in government not to reduce funding to universities for research and teaching. To do so would hamper their ambitions to reduce their emissions and “damage the ability of universities to be part of the solution”, they said.

The statement comes weeks ahead of the comprehensive spending review – which English universities fear may herald cuts – and the day after the UK government set out its long-awaited net-zero plan for the country.

UUK said that the cut to Official Development Assistance in spring, which halved funding for research tied to the UK, “constrain[ed] the power of universities to combat the world’s most pressing sustainability challenges,” said UUK in its climate emergency strategy. It hopes to avoid any similar cuts in the months ahead.

With stable funding, UK universities will continue to pioneer approaches and provide the world with the science, skills, and talent needed to safeguard the future of the planet
– Prof Judith Petts, University of Plymouth 

The pledge to reduce university emissions only include those within scope one and two: those greenhouse gases released either directly by a university, such as gas boilers or campus vehicles, or those released from the generation of purchased energy, like electricity from a gas power station.

Scope three emissions are “indirect emissions”, which are harder to monitor. They include staff commuting to campus, international students flying to the UK, cloud storage, and all the products, materials and services bought by a university. UUK said the sector will “commit to a programme of work to set targets [for scope three emissions] as soon as possible”.

All universities will now publish targets on their websites, UUK said.

The sector-wide 78% reduction target will stretch some – but several universities are already near achieving it. Gloucestershire University has reduced emissions by 63%, and the University of Plymouth has decreased its own by 62%. Keele has installed solar panels and a wind farm on campus, capable of producing 50% of the university energy requirements.

The Climate Commission for Higher and Further Education, of which UUK is a part, told universities this February they should declare a climate emergency and set challenging targets” to reach net-zero emissions by 2030. Today’s statement falls somewhat short of that.

Carbon dioxide emissions from UK universities dropped by 10% in the year to July 2020, suggest latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) – but the number of institutions opting out of publishing their environmental data has risen.

A survey of UK university estates directors earlier this year indicates planning to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions has “barely started” at a quarter of higher education institutions.

Government funding vital, say vice-chancellors

The declaration includes comments from vice-chancellors, principals and senior sustainability directors.

Many refer to the importance of government funding for the achievement of carbon neutrality. Prof Sir Anton Muscatelli, the vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow, called on ministers to allow universities access to the public sector decarbonisation scheme.

Stephen Marston, the vice-chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire, said universities could help create more sustainable local economies with “dedicated decarbonisation funding for universities”. Professor Trevor McMillan, the vice-chancellor of Keele University, said the “importance of long-term core funding for research [to net zero]… cannot be understated”.

Comparing net zero targets like ‘apples and pears’

Some universities do not publish emissions data – and the sector does not collect and measure greenhouse gas emissions and waste statistics in a standardised way. The sustainability strategy promises to eradicate these inconsistencies and publish transparent data.

Iain Patton, chief executive of the sustainability charity EAUC, is helping lead the Climate Commission for Higher and Further Education. The commitment from UUK promises that universities will use the commission’s new toolkit for higher education institutions (HEI).

Discussing the commission exclusively with this publication, Patton said he was encouraged at the ambition of universities shown – but warned, “while there are more and more people getting their ducks in a row [by setting targets], we’re often comparing apples with pears”.

“Not only does this impede institution comparison and collective progress, but we at EAUC see it as a risk to sector credibility and reputation,” said Patton. From EAUC’s point of view, standardisation is essential.

Several UK universities, most notably the University of Cambridge, have set themselves science-based targets to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, which sought to limit average global warming to a 1.5°C by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial temperatures.

This pioneering approach for higher education has drawbacks, says Patton. The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is a framework for industries to set carbon-zero targets consistent with the 2015 Agreement.

Designed for high-polluting sectors, the current methodology and figures of the SBTi do not fit the education sector. But their brand awareness and links to official statistics from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change mean they are ambitious and internationally recognised. EAUC has been encouraged by the World Wide Fund for Nature, which does not have time to develop targets for HE, to set about writing them. This project will start in November, said Patton.

Universities announce new funding for sustainability teaching

To coincide with the COP26 conference in Glasgow this year, UUK said seven universities “are offering new support to students to develop the future generation of climate leaders” with scholarships, modules and research grants. The participating universities are Glasgow, Goldsmiths, Newcastle, Nottingham, Nottingham Trent, Plymouth and Sussex. All have asked ministers to match the funding.

Professor Judith Petts, the vice-chancellor of the University of Plymouth, said: “There is no simple solution to the climate crisis, with every sector of the economy facing a different set of challenges. Universities are some of the most effective weapons in the UK’s climate and environmental armoury.”

“The commitments universities are making are far more than simply touting our eco-credentials. But we need government to support sustainable funding for the sector rather than further cuts, and specifically, we hope that they will recognise the opportunities of the COP26 scholarships,” she continued. “With stable funding, UK universities will continue to pioneer approaches and provide the world with the science, skills, and talent needed to safeguard the future of the planet.”


Read more: Sustainable university architecture: build less, retrofit more, say experts

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