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What can universities do about climate change?

  • 13 January 2023
  • By Sam Fankhauser

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. 

Teaching

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.

Research 

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.

Community engagement 

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

Campus emissions

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

Divestment

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.

5 comments

  1. Hugh Jones says:

    Some very salient points here, and I would agree that HE needs to be and seen to be a leader in addressing carbon emissions.

    On travel by staff and students, it seems to me that the current business model for universities – requiring lots of international flights for students and staff – is simply unsustainable. Atmospheric carbon doesn’t care why it was released: there’s no plausible ‘ah but the greater good’ argument here.

    Universities need to change their business models in the next few years to eliminate the need for flights. This will be disruptive, but not as disruptive as the sudden transition needed when flying becomes too expensive or socially unacceptable.

  2. Richard Heller says:

    Some excellent ideas by Sam Frankhauser, and by Hugh Jones about travel. The elephant in the room is the financial dependence on international students. Since local students seem to have voted with their feet by abandoning lectures, the time has come to take up Keri Facer’s challenge in her HEPI report and re-structure. A pivot to online learning is the only way to really reform higher education to sustain planetary health https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(22)00216-9/fulltext.

  3. albert wright says:

    The concept and model of a Distributed University would seem to have considerable merit in achieving carbon emission reduction.

    However, it seems to me time is running out and we need to make some very fundamental and radical changes in the way we think and the actions we take, so the planet can become sustainable.

    Perhaps we, in the more prosperous world, should abandon the pursuit of two current goals that seem to contribute to the problem we have, rather than solving it:

    1 The desire to live longer.

    All of us will die one day. It would help humanity if more of us were happy to die earlier in life. Wanting a better life should replace wanting a longer life for many of us.

    2 The desire for economic growth.

    The production of more goods / things for those of us who already have more than we need, more than we can use, needs to stop.

    Continuous consumption, low levels of recycling, the abandonment and physical destruction of things we no longer need or want are at the heart of the carbon crisis.

    We need to develop new ways of living and possibly consider Consumption Taxes at sufficiently high levels to reduce the waste mainly created by the western world.

  4. Is there a further opportunity for universities – to collaborate more effectively on research, so achieving much greater scale?

    As the article states, “climate change is a massive research and innovation challenge”, and it’s great to read that “Oxford Net Zero … combines researchers from across the university, including biologists, geologists, atmospheric physicists, engineers, land use modellers, political scientists, accountants, lawyers and economists.”

    But suppose that this inter-disciplinary, and cohesively managed, collaboration were writ large, across all campuses?

    Take, for example, one aspect of Oxford Net Zero’s activities, research into Greenhouse Gas Removal – a technology now recognised as being fundamental to repairing the climate. Is it better to have several small groups studying this, or one much larger one? My vote is for scale – just like the Apollo program in the 1960s and the Manhattan Project in the 1940s.

    The government has not made this happen. But since many of the key resources are within universities, could the HE sector, working co-operatively, take the initiative?

  5. A very interesting and insightful article, with some great ideas in the comments, too.

    It’s sadly becoming increasingly evident that we can’t rely on governments to take the lead in addressing climate change. But universities have considerable power – as the article highlights – to initiate and to drive action.

    In addition to the net-zero agenda and climate change mitigation more broadly, though, universities are going to need to think about climate adaptation and resilience, too. Some of the things they do now will inevitably no longer be possible or desirable, but other opportunities may present themselves.

    Anyway, it’s important that we’re starting to have the discussion. And while the whole topic can be somewhat overwhelming at times, I hope Sam’s ideas inspire others to act, too.

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