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Rishi Sunak has watered down the Government’s net-zero policies – should universities do the same or redouble their efforts?

  • 21 September 2023
  • By Nick Hillman

Like the UK Government, UK universities have typically adopted bold net zero targets. In the words of Universities UK:

Across the country, universities have stepped up their climate commitments. Not only have many universities committed to the government’s goal of net zero by 2050, but many have shown ambition and leadership by setting much earlier goals of 2030 or 2040.

There is also a sector-wide target set in 2021 of ‘reducing emissions by 78% by 2035 and achieving net zero by 2050 at the latest.’

During the COVID pandemic, there was a dramatic decline in universities’ carbon emissions as campuses were denuded of staff and students. For example, in 2019/20 the University of Sunderland ‘achieved a whopping 65% carbon savings’.

Universities had typically expressed a desire to not only bank such improvements but also, as at the University of Oxford, ‘to build on the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and the potential shift to more environmentally sustainable working practices.’

Although after COVID declined, the sector’s emissions rose a little in 2020/21, they fell once more in 2021/22, leading the Times Higher Education to note: ‘Carbon emissions released by higher education institutions in the UK have fallen to their lowest level for at least six years’.

This sounds like good news. The sector’s approach of going beyond the reductions achieved during COVID was at one with the argument put forward in a bold HEPI Debate Paper published in December 2020 by Professor Keri Facer:

it is clear that we cannot return to business as usual in our universities and colleges as we work out how to respond to the wreckage of the [COVID] pandemic. Nor can we just throw money at greenwashing our activities – a few fairtrade coffees and a little bit of offsetting of flights for conferences – and think this constitutes an adequate response to the changed world we now inhabit. More substantial action is required if the emissions curve and biodiversity loss is to be addressed and if students are to be supported to live and act with confidence in these changing times.

Yet two things have become increasingly clear in recent months.

First, after the down / up / down rollercoaster ride on emissions during the COVID-affected period, emissions are no longer falling by much if at all. They are certainly not falling anything like as much as they need to if the sector is to remain on course to hit its own institutional and sectoral targets.

Take the University of Manchester, which has a zero-carbon target date of 2038 (down 13% each year) and an interim goal of ‘reducing carbon emissions from a 2018 baseline of 54,000 tCO2 [tonnes of carbon-equivalent] to at least 21,000 tCO2 by 2025.’ In 2021/22, the total was 52,000 tCO2.

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research says the University can emit a total of 450,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from 2018 before exceeding their carbon budget. As the chart shows, this will happen long before 2038.

Although it is larger than most institutions, there is no reason to think Manchester is untypical. This suggests institutions which were more-or-less on the right trajectory towards their net zero targets around the time of the pandemic may generally no longer be so.

That’s why people like Jack Ruane of People and Planet say, ‘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.’

Secondly, the sort of money – generally hundreds of millions of pounds – that needs to be spent to make the changes necessary (for example to old buildings) in order to hit universities’ bold net zero targets is not readily available.

Either the cash is not there, given the underfunding of much university activity, or there are other even more pressing priorities than staying on course for a net zero target that might still be a decade or so away and which falls within the tenure of a future management and governance team.

It is remarkably easy to make bold long-term commitments, like abolishing child poverty or delivering net zero, when the target date is years away. But if you amble on the way, then at some point on the journey you either have to accept that the destination remains out of reach on your original timeframe or a dramatic change of speed is needed. (The tortoise may have won the race in the tortoise and the hare, but neither completed the course in a speedy time.)

Perhaps the most notable thing about the Government’s new announcements watering down their policies on reaching net zero is that the overall net zero target is entirely unaffected. The Prime Minister’s article on the Number 10 website announcing the new approach begins with the words, ‘I’m absolutely committed to reaching Net Zero by 2050.’

Different people will have different views on whether this is credible but, as the Universities UK quote at the start makes clear, higher education institutions have generally adopted targets that are more ambitious than the Government’s.

So perhaps the time has come to admit such goals are unachievable using current policies and either to alter the target date or to transform the programme of action to deliver them – or both?


PS University emissions are measured via Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3. Universities’ targets are generally for Scope 1, which covers emissions from sources that a university controls directly (such as fuel for its vehicles), and Scope 2, which covers emissions that a university indirectly produces (such as those from the energy that it uses). Scope 3 covers all emissions not included in Scopes 1 and 2, including the flights of staff and students. Scope 3 is admittedly much harder to measure but a net zero target which ignores the travel arrangements of the 600,000+ international students who come to the UK to study is, arguably, not worth very much. On the other hand, a university which makes a breakthrough in research that helps the world significantly reduce global carbon emissions – in aviation say – would see no specific benefit in its own numbers.

1 comment

  1. Gavin Moodie says:

    Thanx very much for this most helpful post. I found the postscript particularly informative.

    Universities should cut their subsidies of staff flying. This would not be technically hard to do and would save universities money. It would also signal universities’ commitment to cutting their emissions. However, it would require careful and perhaps extended discussions within universities.

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