This blog was kindly contributed by Sam Fankhauser, Professor of Climate Economics and Policy at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford.
At COP27 in Egypt this November – officially, the 27th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – a sobering statistic made the rounds. Despite all the rhetoric, current climate policies still commit us to a temperature increase of 2.7°C , well above the 1.5-2.0°C target set in the 2015 Paris Agreement. We have to get much more serious about climate action.
Few sectors have a more wide-ranging role than higher education in delivering our climate goals. Pretty much everything universities do has a direct bearing on climate outcomes.
At a recent dinner organised by HEPI and Lloyds Bank, I outlined what climate change means for our teaching, our research, our community engagement, the way we run our campuses and, for those lucky enough to have endowments, the way we invest.
The zero-carbon economy requires new and different skills. Education institutions will have to adjust to provide them.
We are starting to understand how the demand for specific skills will shift. The zero-carbon economy is a smart, electrified economy, so we will require many more engineers and particularly electrical engineers.
But the changes are much broader. There is hardly a degree where the syllabus will not be affected. Architects have to learn how to build zero-carbon, climate resilient homes. Public health professionals will be confronted with different health challenges. Business students have to understand and measure climate risks. Archaeologists and anthropologists will want to understand how a changing climate affects our cultural heritage. The list goes on.
We cannot just restrict ourselves to train the next generation. There is a huge demand for executive education to re-skill and upskill the existing workforce. Entrepreneurial universities will see this as an opportunity. In Oxford, we are teaming up with executive education providers to offer tailor-made courses, for example for public servants.
Technological, behavioural and economic solutions to decarbonise our economies are increasingly available. Many, like renewable energy and electric cars, are becoming mainstream. Even so, climate change is a massive research and innovation challenge.
It is not just about technology. We also need innovation in business models and policy solutions as well as a better understanding of public attitudes, behaviours and the political economy of climate change. Universities are at the core of this research agenda.
The research that is required must be solution-oriented and interdisciplinary. This is difficult in a system that values academic discovery over application and measures research excellence along disciplinary lines. But it is possible. Oxford Net Zero, the programme I help to run, combines researchers from across the university, including biologists, geologists, atmospheric physicists, engineers, land use modellers, political scientists, accountants, lawyers and economists.
Universities are an important part of their local community. This provides an opportunity to advance climate action at the local level. Three out of four local authorities have declared a climate emergency. They look to their local university for help, analytical guidance and expertise in implementing their climate ambitions.
The collaboration between universities, local councils, businesses and the third sector can be an effective driver of place-based climate action. I am part of the place-based climate action network, a UKRI-funded initiative that supports local climate commissions in Belfast, Edinburgh and Leeds. The commissions have become important platforms for debate, knowledge exchange and the search for solutions. It is a powerful model that is increasingly emulated elsewhere.
Universities are among a growing number of institutions that are committing to net zero emissions. Over 1,000 universities have adopted net zero targets worldwide.
Just as with the pledges countries make at COPs, the credibility of these commitments matters. There are many pitfalls, not least how to deal with indirect emissions, or Scope 3 emissions, as they are known in the jargon.
Many universities have international student bodies, and their academics engage in global research efforts. This has implications for travel-related emissions, one of the most difficult emissions sources to address. There is also the question of how remaining emissions may be offset, once all emission reduction opportunities have been exploited.
There is a bewildering array of standards and guidelines, which makes it difficult to get the right advice. Universities may have a role in setting the right standards. At Oxford, we are collaborating with the International Standards Organisation (ISO) to define what good net zero looks like.
Few decisions by their university exercise students more than the investments they make in fossil fuel companies. Student calls for divestment are supported by some seasoned investors, but the issue is not straightforward. Selling high-carbon assets does not reduce emissions, it only passes them on, and the new owners may be less interested in climate change. A more promising approach is to remain invested and push companies to accelerate their decarbonisation plans.
This is more time consuming and complex than simply selling up, and the reputation risks are considerable. If firms do not respond with credible climate plans, those stakes will have to be sold, but how to judge the credibility of a plan?
Most universities leave these decisions to professional asset managers, but they have to set the guidelines and in some cases in-house expertise can be brought to bear. This is the case at the London School of Economics. LSE hosts the Transition Pathway Initiative, a collaboration with institutional investors, which aims to inform asset owners about the Paris alignment publicly listed companies. The same information can be used to shape LSE’s own investment decisions.
It is a good example of how the different strands of intervention suggested here – teaching, research, engagement, investment and own emissions – all interact.
HEPI’s report on universities and climate change can be accessed here: Beyond business as usual: Higher education in the era of climate change (HEPI Debate Paper 24).
HEPI has recently been notified of a Memorial Service for our former Chair, Professor Sir Graeme Davies. Please find further information about this here.