Half of UK’s universities set to miss near-term climate targets

An analysis of sustainability at 154 of the UK's universities has found that 54% are not on track to meet the near-term climate target set for the higher education sector, but that several are leading on climate action.

Half of UK’s universities set to miss near-term climate targets

Image: Manchester Metropolitan University

The People and Planet University League, published today (9 December), assesses the steps universities are taking to reduce their environmental impact, promote sustainable development and protect workers’ rights.

Manchester Metropolitan University is ranked as the most sustainable, overall, in the UK – up from second place in the previous edition of the league. The University has taken the top spot three times, now, since the ranking began in 2007. It scored particularly strongly on sustainability policy and strategy, staff and student engagement and carbon reduction, with operational (Scope 1 and 2) emissions down by more than 64% against a 2005 baseline.

In second place is King’s College London, which has jumped up the league from 21st place in the previous edition of the league. The University expanded its annual sustainability week into a sustainability month this year, ahead of the publication of an updated sustainability strategy. New targets include achieving net-zero operational emissions by 2025 and divesting from fossil fuels by the end of 2022.

These two universities are notably in cities with pre-2050 net-zero targets. London has a 2030 target and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has set a vision for 2038.

Rounding out the top five are Nottingham Trent University, De Montfort University, Cardiff Metropolitan University and the University of Worcester. The last two are tied in terms of overall score.

Also in the top ten are UAL, the University of Bedfordshire, Plymouth University and Swansea University.

Bigger picture

The League’s publishers are keen to emphasise, however, that the UK’s higher education sector as a whole has much work left to improve sustainability, in areas including decarbonisation.

According to People and Planet, 46% of UK universities are on track to meet the sector-wide emissions reduction target set by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), up from around one-third in 2019. The target was originally deadlined at 2020 but the deadline was pushed to 2022 due to Covid-19. It entails reducing operational emissions by 30% against a 2018 baseline.

This leaves more than half (54%) of universities off-track. People and Planet believes the proportion may actually be greater, as some locations will have seen significant reductions in emissions due to a lack of activity on campus during Covid-19. Moreover, HESA’s next carbon targets are likely to be more ambitious. The organisation has stated that universities should strive to halve emissions by 2030, in contribution to the national net-zero transition.

The league also raises concerns about whether Universities are going beyond fossil fuel divestment pledges to deliver truly sustainable investment policies and action. The average score for the ‘Ethical Investment and Banking’ category was just 31%. More than half of the universities are yet to set policy exclusions for fossil fuel firms and 90% are not prioritising investment in renewable energy at this stage.

“That 82% of divested universities have enshrined this commitment in policy, compared to one-third two years ago, is significant and worthy of celebration,” said People and Planet’s climate campaigns manager Laura Clayson.

“However, the overall poor scoring of the Ethical Investment and Banking section is a disappointing result in a year when the climate crisis is so high on the social, political and economic agenda with COP26.

“Universities must do more to sever all ties with the fossil fuel industry for both its climate-wrecking behaviours and its consistent violation of the rights of the frontline and Indigenous communities where it operates. Meaningful action from UK universities needs to include exclusions of fossil fuels from their investments, an ethical banking approach, investing in the just transition to a low-carbon world, ending graduate recruitment pipelines into the fossil fuel industry and ensuring all these commitments are enshrined in policy at a senior level.”

Sarah George

Comments (1)

  1. Ian Byrne says:

    It would be helpful if edie could provide a link to the underlying report, so we can read more.

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