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Most UK universities have failed to meet their carbon reduction targets: Reducing ambition and embracing offsetting is not the solution

  • 20 January 2023
  • By Jack Ruane

The People & Planet University League was first published in 2007 and on the 6 December 2022 its 13th edition was released. Over the years its assessment criteria have become an influential framework which has been used to guide the promotion of sustainability across the higher education sector. When surveyed in January 2022, 69% of sustainability managers said the People & Planet University League had a direct impact on institutional policymaking. This People & Planet student network has led the sector towards many pioneering policies, such as divestment from the fossil fuel industry – launched in 2014  and now celebrating 100 institutions divested – and the move towards ending recruitment links with the fossil fuel industry, which has quickly gained momentum andshares some high-profile supporters. However, the assessment criterion that was considered most headline-worthy in the Guardian and the Independent was the higher education sector’s failure to meet its own carbon reduction emissions target by a large margin – just 41% of the sector managed to reduce scope 1 and 2[1] emissions by 43% by 2020/21 from a 2005/06 baseline.

Moving Targets

In 2010, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE published a joint carbon reduction strategy. The strategy set a target for the sector to reduce scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions by 43% between 2005/06 and 2020/21. The figure was chosen as it fit with government targets at the time, and claimed to have ‘widespread agreement that higher education needs to play its part in reducing carbon emissions and that it is uniquely placed to lead the way’[2] after consultation feedback. People & Planet was encouraged to see a statement of recognition of the role of the higher education sector in reduction of carbon emissions, and subsequently integrated the sector-agreed target into its University League assessment framework in support.

Fast forward five years and a Brite Green report on sector progress towards this target concluded that ‘Over 75% of universities are set to miss their own 2020 targets.’ Higher education institutions at the time blamed a lack of government support through funding or green tariffs, but underlined their intent and responsibility to meet its emissions reduction target. Following this poor progress, the target was dealt two further blows in 2018 when the Hefce handed the regulatory baton to the Office For Students (OfS). First, the Office for Students removed the statutory requirement to report estates management record (EMR) data, including data on scope 1 and 2 emissions, to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), describing reporting emissions data as ‘burdensome’. This happened despite many sector bodies clamouring for the  importance of these data in enabling institutions to be held accountable on performance in carbon reduction. Secondly, it introduced a new suggestion that ‘further and higher educational institutions should aim for net-zero GHG [Green House Gas] emissions for scope 1 and 2 by 2030 as a minimum’ with no guidance provided on the use of offsetting as an aspect of that net-zero recommendation.

How did the sector perform?

85% of the sector voluntarily reported 2020/21 EMR data to HESA, a slight increase on the previous year. The release of this data by HESA in the autumn of 2022 allowed us to evaluate for the first time the sector’s performance on its 15-year carbon reduction target. As the Brite Green report had predicted, the results were disappointing. Just 62 higher education institutions managed to achieve the target, meaning 59% of the sector has failed. While recognition should be given to those universities that did achieve the target despite lack of government support, the number of universities that failed their own target is damning. The poor performance on carbon reduction is also evident in other areas of the HESA EMR record. Just 8% of universities reported generating over 10% of their energy from renewable sources, and 44% of universities reported buying zero energy from green tariffs.[3]

Net Zero Targets

Following the OfS’s suggestion of a net zero target for the sector, celebrations of net-zero target setting have abounded in UK higher education. Net zero targets, which describe a state where emissions are matched by the amount of carbon absorbed or offset, are attractive to organisations as they can rely on future carbon removals, instead of engaging in the difficult process of rapid real-terms decarbonisation today. This burn now, pay later approach is often built on inexistent emerging technologies that have not proven to be viable scientifically or economically. While nature-based solutions such as tree planting are suggested, these claims are questionable due to there simply not being enough available land to absorb all the CO2 necessary, or lacking consideration for people that may be displaced from their land by the offsetting process. Ultimately net zero targets defer responsibility to future generations and permit business as usual operations in the present.

The sector target announced in 2021 by Universities UK, of a 78% reduction in scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions by 2035 on a 1990 baseline, is less ambitious in terms of % reduction and time than the Hefce target that the sector failed to meet. The response to a widely failed target should be increased action from our universities, not lowering of the bar, especially as we stand dangerously close to irreversible climate tipping points.

People & Planet believes the higher education sector must return to the ethos and ambition of the 2005/06-2020/21 target if it is serious about its responsibilities in fighting the climate crisis. This means an approach to carbon reduction that is short-term, annually measured, and based on a real-terms reduction in carbon emissions. Celebration of far-off target setting and dubious carbon offsetting must be abandoned in favour of realistic and rapid decarbonisation in the here and now.

This is the second recent HEPI blog on universities and climate change – the other can be accessed here.

[1] Emissions caused by the university directly or via its purchased energy

[2] (Point 8b, page 5)

[3] Based on the 153 higher education institutions included in the People & Planet University League that reported this data item to HESA.


  1. Kevin says:

    Most UK universities have failed (to educate)…period.

  2. Arti Kumar says:

    Many universities are attempting to educate for sustainable development but universities and educators within them will need to role model what they teach, and partner with students in making individual – and collective – change.
    This is the most pressing issue of our times. In writing the second edition of my book (Kumar, A. 2022, see in website box below), I have expanded the SOAR framework to include the UN’s SDGs as a key integrated goal for all students, aligned with their personal, emotional and social development of employability skills and attributes. Please take a look and use the comprehensive enablers provided for all educators to use, now available as downloadable eResources. The world needs educators to prioritise this type of personalised, holistic learning and development.

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