Reflections on Climate Action and Sustainability in UK Universities

  • Climate and sustainability

Professor Judith Petts CBE, FAcSS, FRGS, FRSA, Vice Chancellor, University of Plymouth 

Here Judith Petts reflects on the role and responsibilities of universities in addressing climate change.  Obviously the higher education sector provides research to help us understand the challenge we face, and it also generates innovation and technological solutions.  But Judith explores whether it can ensure that this leads to sustainable development rather than simply contributing to the growth-based economies that have caused the problem to begin with.

The role of universities in sustainable development and climate action has at least three decades of international recognition, analysis, and practice.  Recently, there have been appeals for universities to deepen their commitments to sustainability in the face of climate change. ‘Bolder’ or’ renewed action’ is advocated given the urgency and magnitude of the climate and ecological challenges. University students have become particularly vocal, not only about carbon action in institutional operations but in demands for deeper, more justice-oriented commitments. A recent survey of international students applying to UK universities confirms how important sustainability, and specifically the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to them, particularly viewing it as a wide-ranging and all-encompassing movement that institutions should embed in their work.

The global Impact rankings have drawn attention to the performance of universities against the 17 SDGs with a significant increase in participating institutions in just 4 years (450 from 76 countries in 2019, 1406 institutions from 106 countries in 2022). Already interpreted as an ‘objective’ assessment of progress towards the SDG goals, these rankings reflect the rapid pace of change in institutional responses.

As the UK was preparing to host the UN COP26 in 2021 and as climate change awareness and concerns reached a new high, Universities UK (UUK) (the representative body of some 140 UK universities) set out commitments agreed through cross-sector discussion in relation to climate and sustainability action. Specifically, that institutions should:

  •  Set targets for scope 1 and 2 emission reductions which support the UK government’s plans for reducing emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels and achieving net zero by 2050 at the latest.
  • Set a target for scope 3 emission reductions and other environmental targets beyond emissions.
  • Ensure these targets are visible and progress is reported in a transparent, and understandable way.
  • Sign the Education SDG Accord or embed elements of SDG accord reporting into existing reporting with climate change firmly embedded as a sustainability issue

A year later a survey of UUK members found good progress with 96% of institutions reporting a clear, publicly available strategy to reduce carbon emissions, 97% having sustainability information openly available on their website, and 82% reporting their carbon reduction figures.  The proportion of universities committed to net zero targets had increased from 61% (in 2021) to 76%, with 89% of these universities committed to net zero emissions under scope 1 and 2.

The UK university sector is highly diverse in terms of size of institutions, financial scale and robustness, subject orientation (comprehensive or specialist), age and type of estate, their role in their local area.  So, the extent and more importantly the depth of climate and sustainability action is inevitably variable. My own institution has driven sustainability through its activities over at least 20 years, supported particularly by strong subject knowledge in environmental and marine sciences. Sustainability and climate action is embedded in the institutional strategy and the supporting strategic plans (research and innovation, education and student experience, estate, digital, international). The University has reported on progress using the Global Reporting Initiative standards tool since 2014. Year-on-year investment to reduce carbon emissions has resulted in net zero scope 1 and 2 being declared in 2022. Leadership from the top has been crucial and within the sector the need to support universities to make progress in this regard is recognised with the Climate and Sustainability Steering Group of UUK working alongside sector bodies such as the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC) in this regard.

In 2022, the UK Department for Education published its Sustainability and Climate Strategy, which is relevant to all educational settings but is likely to have most impact in schools given the progress already made by universities and the greater limitations that schools face in terms of expertise and resources. Linked to this, the Royal Anniversary Trust supported by UUK and EAUC set out actions which the tertiary education sector and government should take to accelerate to net zero. This includes a standardised emissions framework for carbon reporting emphasising emissions counting and operational change – everything from the built environment, to travel and transport, procurement and supply and investment.

Emissions reduction and reporting are the ‘harder’ elements of institutional work.  The SDGs serve to stress the ‘softer’ issues such as changes in values, attitudes, and motivation as well as in curricula, societal interaction, assessments of the impacts of research, leadership, and staff engagement. Comprehensive integration of sustainability into institutional practice is dependent on (i) leadership and vision, (ii) incorporation of sustainability into teaching and research across all disciplines, (iii) fostering interdisciplinary teaching and research, (iv) recognition of and action around the ecological footprint of the institution, and (iv) engagement in community outreach that enhances environmental sustainability.

Climate and sustainability education is fundamental to the social, environmental, and economic challenges that the world faces and to the future working and private lives of university graduates. This has led to examination of how education and student experience is engaging climate change and wider sustainability considerations. For example, is it ‘piggybacking’ on existing courses, becoming mainstreamed into all courses, just a specialist offer, or becoming a connecting thread through newly designed offers? To move up the scale to embedding climate and sustainability education into all programmes is underway but it requires a whole institutional approach, staff engagement and enthusiasm, often significant changes to programmes, as well as support from professional accrediting bodies.

Engaging meaningfully with the SDGs requires critical thinking that challenges preconceptions. In the UK, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) support is designed ‘to equip learners across all disciplines with the knowledge, skills, attributes, and values required to pursue sustainable visions of the future. Enabling them to address complex or ‘wicked problems’. ESD objectives must be part of an institution’s strategic priorities. The framing of ESD must be included in the validation and review of courses and quality assurance and enhancement processes. Staff and student induction processes, as well as staff appraisal and development and promotion for ESD must be fully supported at an institutional level.

University research has been, and is, fundamental to the understanding of, and response to, climate change and the achievement of sustainability and UK institutions have made significant global contributions in this respect. Critiques in this context question whether technological responses to climate change are continuing the growth-based economic systems that have created the challenges in the first place.

Basically, such critiques question whether universities are part of the problem of climate change not only solutions providers. The UK government prioritises funding of research and innovation and the essential role of universities in terms of climate mitigation and adaptation solutions. Certainly, it is important that the institutional approach to research where sustainability is embedded is one where interdisciplinary working and the capacity and structures that support this are strong. Interdisciplinarity should enable the development of new technologies in a social and values-based context.

With challenges to concepts of ‘bolt-on’ sustainability there has been increasing discussion of the need for deeper systemic change such that ‘purpose-driven’ institutions might focus on organisational transformation blending the triple helix of academic missions (education, research, and social engagement) under an overarching and fundamental reason to exist focused on the wellbeing of people and the planet. This is a significant challenge to the purpose, governance, accountability and importantly the funding of universities. In the UK, there is widespread concern that the current business model for higher education is not adequate to support societal and economic ambitions.  Sustainable funding of institutions is a major issue, when ‘home student’ fees and public sector research grants do not cover the full cost of operations. Pursuing the ‘hard’ elements of sustainability can bring economic benefits but do require upfront investment (in new energy systems, green roofs, energy efficient buildings etc). Funding the ‘soft’ elements often requires staff and resource investment.

The solutions often advocated are rarely as simple or clear as suggested. Whole systems understanding is essential to ensure workable, economically efficient, and impactful decisions are taken. For example, in calls for institutions to divest from equity shares in fossil fuel companies there are strong moral arguments, but economic analysis shows that divestment does not negatively impact the fossil fuel companies themselves given how they are funded and can be detrimental in universities with large endowment funds. Proactively engaging in ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) investment strategies is of greater value in terms of institutional sustainability objectives.

Sustainability decision-making can be complex and challenging. Actions must be prioritised, and comprehensive data and information are important to inform robust decisions. Leadership from the top embedding institutional vision and strategic priorities to drive change is essential.  Commitment across UK universities is evident, practice is strong and often globally leading, however, there is more to do to achieve longer-term, sustainable transformation.

Photo credit: Matt Drenth on Unsplash

About the author

Professor Judith Petts worked in international banking and retail planning consultancy before returning to research posts at Nottingham University and then Loughborough University. Professor Petts was appointed to the Chair in Environmental Risk Management at University of Birmingham and became Head of the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences in 2001/2. In 2007 she was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor, taking the Research and Knowledge Transfer portfolio. In 2010 Judith moved to the University of Southampton to become the inaugural Dean of the new Faculty of Social and Human Sciences and then in January 2014 was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise. Professor Petts moved to take up her appointment as Vice-Chancellor of Plymouth University in February 2016.