Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

The HE sector must lead on short-term decarbonisation and break free from fossil fuel influence

  • 15 December 2021
  • By Jack Ruane

This blog was contributed by Jack Ruane, University League Manager at People & Planet.

The 2021 People & Planet University League shows many higher education providers are taking positive steps, but the sector still has much to improve. The higher education sector must go beyond inadequate government targets and regulatory oversight and lead by example on rapid sector-wide decarbonisation.

Civil Society Solutions

The COP26 delegates have now departed Glasgow celebrating renewed hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. In what is now becoming customary for a COP finale, attendees negotiated through Friday night to come to the agreement of the Glasgow Climate Pact. Yet the tearful apology of Alok Sharma at Saturday’s big reveal betrayed what many in the climate movement have known for years: Governments are too slow to make the necessary systemic changes to avert the climate catastrophe. As Bill McKibben wrote recently in The Guardian, COPs are a measure of how much influence civil society has gained over governments relative to the fossil fuel industry. Judging by the subtle caveats present in adding ‘unabated’ to agreements on ending fossil fuel extraction and subsidies, and ‘phasing out’ becoming ‘phasing down’, the views of civil society remain peripheral to government plans on climate action.

Higher education providers can be powerful voices within civil society. Their scale, visibility and prestige mean they can influence policy in the private and public spheres. As institutions that represent a community of knowledge-producers they have the ability to lead innovation through their research agendas. As settings where young people form beliefs and behaviours they can be the drivers of positive societal change. They host thousands of people who live, study, work, learn and socialize on their campuses, which could become examples of a more sustainable built environment. Which is why it is disappointing that higher education providers in the UK are celebrating the agreement of unambitious government aligned targets as far away as 2050 in some cases. To put this into perspective, this is the same sector-wide target which the airport industry has set. The COP pledges would limit us to 2.4 degrees of warming if obeyed, and 2.7 degrees if current policies are followed. Higher education must therefore use its considerable resources and platform to show other sectors it is possible to go beyond government targets and achieve the rapid decarbonisation needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

The Student Interest is Sustainability

There have been a number of surveys that tell us that students are increasingly worried about the climate crisis and demand that their institutions operate sustainably and provide them with skills for sustainable development. While providing useful data, we shouldn’t need surveys to tell us what we see and hear all around us at youth protest movements all over the world: young people want radical systemic action on the climate and they want it now. This makes it frustrating that the Office for Students, which defines itself as acting in the student interest, since 2020 no longer requires higher education providers in England and Northern Ireland to report their environmental data on such “burdensome” items as carbon emissions to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). The necessary changes must occur so that the reporting of estates management (EMR) data to HESA becomes mandatory once again, if we are to ensure transparency and accountability on carbon reduction in the sector. People & Planet calls on all stakeholders to respond to the OFS’s 2022-2025 strategy consultation, open until 6 January, by demanding the reporting of EMR data to HESA be mandated again.

What Now?

The 2021 People & Planet University League shows that despite the lack of on-campus activity during 2020 due to the pandemic, 54 per cent of the sector is still not on course to meet the 15 year-long sector-wide carbon reduction target set by the now dissolved Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) before 2022’s deadline. Since the OFS replaced the HEFCE and encouraged the sector to self-regulate on emissions reduction, the failure of the preceding target has been forgotten and higher education providers are celebrating target-setting as far away as 2050. In place of distant targets, what is needed are ambitious short to medium-term emissions reductions accompanied by stringent and regular oversight.

This year’s ranking also shows only 40 per cent of higher education providers have a policy-level commitment to fully divest from fossil fuels and zero institutions have an ethical banking policy that excludes banks that finance fossil fuel extraction. From sponsoring lecture halls to their presence at careers fairs, higher education’s links with fossil fuel companies grant them a social license to operate: This tacit support from institutions that symbolise knowledge and innovation must end. Higher education providers must lead the transition to a low-carbon society by severing all ties with the industry most responsible for the climate crisis.

Since the People & Planet University League began in 2007, the definition of what it means to be sustainable in higher education has shifted from focusing on individual actions such as recycling and switching off lights, to being a systemic issue that features in a range of operational and academic policies. We are encouraged that a number of institutions have shared our reimagining of a sustainable higher education provider and taken a whole-institution approach, but there is still a way to go for the sector to make the changes needed to help avert climate and ecological breakdown.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *