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The race to net zero: universities need to walk the walk on reducing emissions

  • 28 October 2021
  • By Ellie Bothwell

This guest blog was contributed by Ellie Bothwell, Rankings Editor at Times Higher Education (@elliebothwell)

With COP26 rapidly approaching and the warning klaxon on the climate emergency getting ever louder, a new report from Times Higher Education examines how well higher education institutions across the globe are performing when it comes to reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to net zero.

Linked to THE’s Impact Rankings (which is focused on understanding the progress higher education is making against all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals), the whitepaper titled ‘The race to net zero: How global universities are performing’ takes a magnifying glass to the 566 universities that have submitted data against SDG 13 (climate action) and, on the face of it, makes stark reading.

Through decades of academic research, universities have been at the forefront of tracking the changing climate of the planet and warning humankind of the potential repercussions of failing to act. And 80 per cent of university leaders surveyed by THE say pursuit of the SDGs informs how their institution operates. But only just over half of institutions participating in our ranking on SDG 13 actually have a target to reach net zero emissions and only half of those include indirect emissions associated with their institutional activities, such as purchased goods and services or business travel, in their target.

These indirect emissions, known as Scope 3 emissions, are probably the most important to measure and reduce for higher education institutions, given that academics flying abroad to conferences and international students flying to and from host countries should arguably be included in this category. According to the COP26 Universities Network, in the UK alone student flights account for 18 per cent of further and higher education’s emissions, with academic flights contributing a further 4 per cent. But even among universities that say they measure Scope 3 emissions, it seems that the vast majority do not even include international student travel in their calculations.

Higher education institutions will continue to be critical players in the race to net zero emissions regardless of their own operations; through their research, teaching and outreach, they can have a transformational impact on society. Universities around the world are working with governments and corporations to help them understand and control their emissions, and ultimately hit their net zero goals through technological innovation and enhancing scientific understanding of the issue. Institutions are also tasked with educating the leaders of tomorrow, to make them understand what we mean by environmental sustainability and how we can achieve it, so the next generation can take better care of our planet. Doing this work is vital, and universities are a critical cog in the global machine when it comes to solving humanities greatest challenges – both now and in the future.

But universities are also large organisations with significant carbon footprints of their own and they should be setting a leading example for other industries by establishing ambitious targets and meeting them, in addition to properly accounting for all of their emissions, especially when many have the benefit of climate expertise at their fingertips. They must lead by example to ensure credibility among the students they are teaching and to support net-zero goals at a local level, where they are often the biggest employer – and perhaps therefore carbon producer – in their community.

The best way of achieving this will be through sector-wide collaboration. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol (a global standard developed by the World Resources Institute) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (that informs organisations about how to measure, manage and report greenhouse gas emissions) are an excellent place to start. However, a sector-specific framework, like the one proposed by the EAUC, the UK’s Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, would ensure that activities unique to the higher education sector, like international student travel, are consistently included in carbon accounting. This doesn’t have to mean a one-size-fits-all approach to reducing emissions either; the case studies in our report show that there is space for many different approaches to transitioning to net zero, depending on an institution’s mission and values.

Reporting will also be key. THE’s Impact Rankings allow institutions to measure and report on their progress towards SDG13, including their net zero commitments, and provides a tool to identify potential partners to help on the road to net zero. By participating, the higher education community can better understand its achievements, lead by example and demonstrate to its communities and the world that it is serious about achieving net-zero within the sector and beyond.

The full whitepaper is available to download from the Times Higher Education website.

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1 comment

  1. Kevin Kingsbury says:

    Why the focus on climate change? Is it to distract from the failure of Higher Ed to actually educate our young men and women? Did the email release (hack) of the University of East Anglia’s climate dept. not show false data deliberately used by academics to prove a thesis?
    My hope is academic institutions cease promoting theory as truth, take a strong stand against their members who act with dishonestly in furtherance of ego and financial reward and redirect efforts to helping the next generation critically think so solutions may be grounded in reality. Academia can deny reality but not the consequences of reality.

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