One hundred and forty UK universities have agreed their first sector-wide climate change targets, but the goals have been condemned as inadequate, unambitious and omitting key issues.
Universities UK, which represents the institutions, says its members will cut their emissions by at least 78 per cent by 2035 on 1990 levels. They have committed to net zero by 2050. Both targets are identical to those set by the UK government for the economy as a whole.
“It is rubbish,” says Will Richardson at consultancy firm Green Element, who has audited the emissions of universities for decades. “My overall opinion of this is that it is cap in hand asking for money whilst not actually looking at what change has happened in their sector.”
A Universities UK report due out tomorrow, Confronting the Climate Emergency, includes examples of universities that have committed to stronger action, such as the University of Glasgow’s and Keele University’s plans to be net zero by 2030. “Why not celebrate them and bring the sector up to their standard and not to the lowest?” says Richardson.
The sector-wide targets only cover the direct and indirect emissions generated by the universities, known as “scope 1” and “scope 2” in the parlance of emissions accounting. However, the commitment doesn’t cover “scope 3” emissions, which for universities are mostly around travel, particularly international flights by staff and students. Scope 3 targets will instead be set “as soon as possible”, says Universities UK.
Kevin Anderson, an energy and climate change researcher at the University of Manchester, UK, says: “[The plan] offers little more than a rhetorical mission statement, more typical of a large oil company than the very institutions where cutting-edge climate research is undertaken.” On scope 3 emissions, he adds: “Where is the strategy of virtual teaching of foreign students to reduce international travel? Where is the policy to facilitate longer but fewer fieldwork trips?”
Judith Petts, vice chancellor at the University of Plymouth in the UK and an environmental risk management researcher, speaking on behalf of Universities UK, defends the new targets. “The sector understands the importance of this [issue] to our students, to our communities and the businesses we collaborate with,” she says. “It’s absolute commitment, it’s not just about eco-credentials ahead of [the UN’s] COP26 [climate summit]. This is really a statement of intent.”
Asked why the 2050 net-zero target was effectively universities agreeing to abide by the law, Petts says that the ability of institutions to reduce their emissions varies widely across the sector. “They’ve got to arrive at something meaningful for their context,” she says. She also says some universities don’t even have emissions data back to the baseline of 1990.
Petts says one of the biggest challenges universities face is on the scope 3 emissions from air travel, from international students coming to the UK and academics travelling to conferences, research and more. “Unless we stopped flying around the world, because the airline industry cannot reduce its emissions quickly – the technology does not exist – we have to find other ways of offsetting our scope 3 emissions as far as we can,” she says.
The climate targets may also reflect the heavily constrained finances of most universities. The Universities UK report says the UK government “must recognise the need for investment in infrastructure” for institutions to cut emissions, and notes that higher education has received no direct investment for decarbonisation.
Thomas Hale, a public policy researcher at the University of Oxford, says that while the new targets mark a “minimum floor”, he is more encouraged by the pledges individual institutions have made to reach net zero faster than the country as a whole.
The commitment by Universities UK dodges the issue of divesting university’s endowments from fossil fuel companies, which has been a key demand of students on many campuses for the past decade. Those endowments are usually worth hundreds of millions of pounds, and a billion-plus in the case of the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.
Petts says the question of divestment is one for individual universities to consider, and argues that investor engagement with fossil fuel companies may be more productive than divestment. “We also have to look at how we work with investments and companies to develop and change new technologies, working with the traditional fossil fuel companies who have largely moved into renewable energy now,” she says.
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