Majority of universities in UK ‘not on track to meet emissions targets’

More than half of universities are not on track to meet their emissions targets, according to an analysis.

The student network People and Planet has published its annual sustainability university league, which found that 46% of higher education institutions were on course to meet the target, up from a third in 2019.

But the majority were still not on track to meet the target set for the 2020-21 academic year by the former funding agency the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) in 2010.

The league table assessed 154 institutions based on 13 categories including environmental policy and strategy, ethical investment and banking, carbon management and carbon reduction.

Manchester Metropolitan University topped the table with a total score of 86.3%, up from second place in 2019. The table was not published in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Manchester Metropolitan’s vice-chancellor, Prof Malcolm Press, said they were “absolutely delighted”, adding: “Sustainability forms an integral part of everything that we do, from our teaching and research, to the way that we build and use our campus.

“We know the environment is one of the top concerns for people of all ages and this award demonstrates the pivotal role that sustainability plays in university life at Manchester Metropolitan.”

Its initiatives include developing a carbon literacy programme for all staff and students and a toolkit used by dozens of universities globally, a student-led sustainable food network, electric vehicles on campus and a hydrogen fuel cell innovation centre. The report found it had cut carbon emissions by 61% since 2005.

King’s College London was placed second with 79.5% and Nottingham Trent University was third with 78.8%.

At the bottom of the table were the Courtauld Institute of Art with 2.4%, the University College of Osteopathy (UCO) with 2.3% and the University of Sunderland with 0.7% – all of which said they did not submit data to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa).

The most dramatic change came from Durham, which jumped 66 places compared with 2019 – from 96th position to 30th.

Other big changes came from Imperial College London, which jumped 64 places up to 66th, and Cardiff Metropolitan University, which rose 63 places to finish fifth, becoming the highest scoring Welsh university.

The University of Oxford rose 20 places to 25th place, while the University of Cambridge dropped 15 places to finish 82nd.

London Metropolitan University made the largest carbon emission reductions, with a cut of 80% since 2005-06.

Universities performed best in the education for sustainable development category, which assesses how they integrate sustainability into teaching and learning.

But they performed less well in ethical investment and banking, with an average mark of 31%, despite more than half of universities having committed to divest from fossil fuels. They also performed poorly in managing carbon, with an average mark of 30%.

The research found 51% of universities had made no commitment to removing fossil fuels from their investment policies. However, 40% of universities had introduced full divestment policies and 9% had made a partial commitment.

After changes to higher education by the government, under which the Office for Students (OfS) took oversight of the sector from Hefce, it is no longer mandatory for universities to provide data on carbon reduction and other sustainability issues to the Hesa.

People and Planet called for the reporting of this data to be made mandatory once again and for regulatory leadership from the OfS.

Jack Ruane, the manager of People and Planet’s university league, said although improvements had been made in carbon reduction, “it’s still not good overall” and he hoped the gains made during the pandemic would not be “squandered”.

Reliable sustainability credentials were vital for universities to attract prospective students, he said.

“Students are wise to greenwashing. If a university says they are sustainable but invests in fossil fuels, students are not going to believe the sustainability credentials that institution claims. So it’s very much already part of the decision-making of students.”

As a home to students, social space and workplace, campuses had the potential to change the long-term habits of thousands, Ruane added.

The OfS said climate change was a “crucial issue for us all” and universities had an important role in reducing emissions.

“The OfS does not have explicit powers in relation to the collection of emissions data. However, we welcome the fact that universities are increasingly taking collective responsibility for responding to climate change,” an OfS spokesperson said.

The Courtauld said it was “committed to sustainability and has been making progress” but as a small institution it did not have the resources to make the relevant documentation publicly available to be scored.

The University College of Osteopathy said it was unable to submit estates management data this year, adding: “We do not believe this is an accurate reflection of our performance or our commitment to environmental and ethical issues.”

Sunderland said its last place positioning did not reflect its “full commitment – and successful work – around sustainability” and said it did not choose to submit the most recent data to the Hesa estates management record.

“Our environmental sustainability plan to 2025 is already delivering a lasting impact on the environment, including investment in a new fleet of electric vehicles, installation of air source heat pumps and an ongoing solar power project already implemented on City campus now being rolled out to our St Peter’s campus,” a spokesperson said.

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