UK universities are helping lead the world on environmental research – but when it comes to their own back yard they appear to be falling behind.
Only a quarter are on track to meet their carbon reduction targets by 2020. Teams leading environmental initiatives are being cut and sustainability strategies have not been renewed, according to the results of the 2016 People & Planet University League, published on Tuesday.
Lack of government support for public sector sustainability is blamed for the stalling of energy-saving schemes. It is the fourth year that the league – ranking institutions by environmental and ethical performance – has recorded fewer universities on course to meet their legally binding target of reducing emissions by 43% from 2005 levels by 2020.
But not all have abandoned their green goals, with “first class” status being awarded to 30 of the 150 universities. This year Nottingham Trent University, which tops the table, opened the Pavilion, its first carbon negative building. Brighton University, in second place, has made sustainability one of its four core values. The University of Warwick – the biggest mover, up from 129 last year to 34th – is launching a unique BASc cross-disciplinary degree in global sustainable development.
Nottingham Trent’s high score reflects its commitment to engage staff and students, and its aim to include sustainability in all its courses, while the University of Brighton has managed to reduce its carbon footprint despite expanding in size and opening its buildings for longer hours. “Sustainability is a core value in our university,” says Prof Debra Humphris, Brighton’s vice-chancellor. “With students and staff we aim to embed sustainable practices; we all need to play our part.”
A spokesman for the University of Warwick said its improved showing could be partly due to the different way statistics for the league have been collected this year. “They may have picked up more of the things we are doing this year, such as the bike hire scheme, the £5,000 fund to support student projects, and our staff and student green champions initiative,” he said.
The 2016 league table, based on information in the public domain, scores institutions on such factors as the commitment of senior management, the employment of dedicated sustainability staff, divesting from investment in the fossil fuel industry and meeting public sector carbon reduction commitments. It also considers employment factors, such as paying staff the living wage, joining Electronics Watch to improve workers’ rights in that industry and investing in projects that do not exploit or pollute communities.
Before 2010 and the election of the coalition and the Conservative governments, there was a flurry of carbon reduction initiatives linked to higher education funding, says People & Planet, a student campaigning network. “Sustainability drivers such as the capital investment framework (which made tranches of funding contingent on plans to reduce carbon emissions), the higher education green academy and the student green fund have all been removed. Today, it says, “the landscape looks bereft of any significant support or incentive for sustainable development in universities in England.”
“We can now see the concerning impact of the current government’s short-termism with regard to energy and climate policy,” says Hannah Smith, co-director for campaigns and research. “Environmental sustainability has been removed from the government’s annual grant letter setting out higher education funding, leaving the Higher Education Funding Council [Hefce] without the resources it had in the past to support sustainable practice.”
Wealth and academic prestige appear to be uncorrelated to progress on sustainability and ethical employment and procurement. The University of Oxford comes 46th and Cambridge 57th.
Grant Anderson, Nottingham Trent’s environmental manager, says that in the past, external pressures were useful in engaging senior management in the sustainability drive. “These now don’t exist. However, it hasn’t impeded us. We continue to expand from an initial focus on carbon, waste, transport etc to a more holistic approach, understanding the sustainability opportunities of our core business of education and research.
“We made it a formal requirement six months ago that all of our courses incorporate at least one of the 17 UN sustainable development goals. We don’t specify what they include, that is up to the academics, but we think it will give our students an edge in their careers to have considered some of the environmental challenges they will face in their lifetimes. For example, chemistry students are exploring their role in finding solutions to feeding the world in a sustainable way and primary education students learn practical gardening skills at the university’s food share allotments that they will be able to share with their future pupils.”
Government policy is likely to continue to have an impact, however – but a less positive one. Abigail Dombey, Brighton’s environmental manager, says the university has recently installed 893 solar panels, which will save £40,000 a year in energy bills and reduce its carbon footprint by more than 100 tonnes a year. “But the feed-in tariffs – the financial incentives for generating electricity from renewable sources – have been slashed by the government so there is much less incentive to invest in renewable energy.”
She fears some universities could also face higher taxes under the business rates revaluation from next April through the government’s proposal to increase the rateable value of solar panels. As charities, most universities are exempt from at least 80% of business rates but some pay 20% and all pay rates on buildings used commercially.
The bottom 10 in the green league are mostly small, specialist institutions that are less likely to have the resources to employ staff to oversee environmental issues. However, the small specialist Royal Agricultural University, at 16th in the league, shows that a lot can be achieved on a smaller scale.
St Mary’s University in Twickenham, London, with 4,400 students, came in the bottom 10 after researchers found it had no environmental policy or strategy, no publicly available carbon management plan, ethical investment policy or evidence of dedicated sustainability staff. In response, a spokesman said the findings were “not reflective of St Mary’s approach to sustainability” and that “the university has extensive environmental policies including strategies for carbon management, biodiversity and sustainable catering”.
Hefce says its capital investment framework remains in force and requires universities and colleges to “demonstrate that their capital investment plans are aligned with the goal of managing environmental impact and that they have an acceptable carbon management plan in place”. It adds: “The HE sector has developed its expertise significantly over the last decade or so and they are the real experts in what the sector needs to do to drive sustainability plans forward.”