Climate change will affect every part of universities’ work. Here’s what they need to do

Universities need to integrate climate as a strategic driver, argue Thomas Owen-Smith and Jen Summerton

Thomas Owen-Smith is Service Lead for Sustainability at SUMS Consulting

Jen Summerton is the Executive Director of HESPA

COP28 starting later this month will respond to the Global Stocktake, an assessment of the world’s progress on action towards meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5C.

It’s not looking great – the synthesis report released in September estimates that current policies set us on a trajectory to a 2.5C rise by the end of the century. Meanwhile, we see extreme weather events causing damage, disruption and death around the world.

Here in the UK, the Climate Change Committee has voiced concern that the country is unlikely to meet its 2030 emissions targets, also noting that the policy gap has grown since the prime minister’s counterproductive rolling back of some decarbonisation policies.

Zooming in to the HE sector: despite reductions over the last decade, UK universities’ emissions are still estimated at around 15 MtCO2e, the size of a small country.

Institutions are finding that, once the easier retrofits and technical fixes have been done, steady progress towards net zero emissions is really difficult – particularly when it clashes with other strategic agendas.

Faced with this enormity, how should universities set their strategic response to the climate crisis? And how can they deliver it effectively?

What should we be doing?

Our sector gets impact. As mission-led organisations, making a positive difference to society through their education, research and ability to bring people together is what universities are all about and their strategies typically reflect this.

Unsurprisingly therefore, UUK’s collective commitments on behalf of the sector foreground universities’ intention to maximise their contribution to society’s response to the climate crisis alongside their own decarbonisation.

These are exactly the things that universities should be aiming to achieve in this space; although when it comes to strategy, the other side of the coin is making sure one can achieve one’s mission while navigating an increasingly choppy operating environment. Here, the realisation of quite how risky a warmer future could be may not have fully landed yet at some institutions.

The Transition Plan Taskforce’s disclosure framework, published last month, highlights three strands in a “strategic and rounded approach” for organisations to plan their transition to net zero: decarbonise yourself, contribute to the economy-wide transition, and respond to climate-related risks and opportunities. Although TPT is aimed primarily at the private sector, this basic formula applies just as well to universities.

What are we doing?

SUMS Consulting and HESPA’s report, Integrating climate into strategy and planning in universities, released today, looks at the current state of sector practice for integrating climate as a strategic driver, based on a survey of around 50 institutions. It finds universities at different stages on their journey towards decarbonising and building resilience for a warmer, riskier operating environment.

(It’s worth noting that, to keep the survey manageable for respondents, we didn’t focus on universities’ contribution to the economy-wide transition, but many institutions are doing this through their education, research and external engagement, as well as approaches to procurement which encourage suppliers to reduce their emissions.)

It’s a rare institution these days (just two per cent of our sample) that doesn’t have a public commitment to climate action, and nearly 90 per cent of respondent institutions reported that they now have a target year for achieving net zero in scope 1 and 2 emissions. We’d now consider this standard practice in the sector.

That said, only two-thirds of respondents have planned a pathway for how they will achieve that target or have carbon emissions as a KPI, and even fewer have a target for net zero in scope 3. Around half of respondents have established an institution-level budget to fund the (substantial) costs of climate initiatives, and a similar number are using climate-related performance metrics and regularly scanning climate-related risks and opportunities. At the current juncture, these practices – essential tools for managing decarbonisation – are diffusing across the sector.

A final set of practices we find to be emergent in UK higher education: carbon budgets (19 per cent adoption reported amongst our sample), internal carbon pricing (eight per cent adoption) and scenario modelling for climate impacts on strategy and finances (four per cent). All will come to be adopted more widely over time.

Overall, around half of our sample feel that practice at their institution for integrating climate into strategy and planning is effective, and there is a moderate correlation between respondents’ self-efficacy assessments and the number of integration practices adopted.

The practices map to different stages of the climate action journey, and the varied picture of their adoption to date reflects what we have seen across the sector – that institutions are in very different places, which can be due to a range of reasons and circumstances. Small institutions in particular face challenges around capacity and resource.

Let’s work together

When we asked about roles, we found a huge diversity of models, with responsibilities and accountability for the agenda ranging from vice chancellors or boards through senior academic leaders, sustainability or estates teams to finance or strategic planning teams, various combinations of these, or – at some institutions – ambiguity.

The wide range of approaches is likely due to the agenda’s relative novelty and the diversity of institutions’ size, overall structures and models for the sustainability and strategic planning functions in particular.

No specific model is definitively linked to more integration practices being adopted, or to higher self-efficacy assessments – even overall accountability sitting with a member of the leadership team. The variable which does appear linked to higher scores is collaboration between the planning and sustainability teams, which is a stronger factor for progress against the agenda than leadership by any specific role or function.

Recent research on green skills (those skills needed in the workforce to support the transition to a sustainable economy) notes both an expansion of the skillset and scope of existing specialist sustainability roles and an increased need for green skills in roles without a specialist focus on sustainability.

The first clear message here is that, as sustainability (including climate) grows in prominence as a core driver for all organisations, having the right specialist expertise (that is, sustainability professionals) at the table is essential to inform strategic decision-making.

The second message, borne out by our research, is the increasing need for collaboration between all professional groups, who bring distinct skillsets and specialisms, towards achieving sustainability goals.

Use your strategic planners

Strategy and planning functions in UK universities hold a broad set of remits which drive strategy development and implementation. Key elements of the brief include incorporating internal and external drivers, managing competing priorities and balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders for a holistic institution-wide approach.

By its nature, climate is a complex, whole-institution issue: exactly the kind that strategic planners grapple with on a regular basis.

The coordinating and integrative role of strategic planners offers opportunities for them to make valuable contributions towards supporting development and delivery of institutional mission around climate, helping their institutions navigate developments in the operating environment, enabling the planning and delivery of technical interventions, and developing practices which change the modes of core university business and decision-making to reduce their climate impacts.

But to do this, they need a common language and subject knowledge to work with sustainability specialists and others.

Our work around this report is intended as an initial step towards upskilling. We have also established a new HESPA community of practice around integrating sustainability into university strategy and planning, to support planners to develop their practice and collaborate with other groups, who are also welcome.

The challenge we face

The scope for universities to speed society’s journey towards a sustainable future through working with different groups to understand the problems, develop the solutions and help deploy them is immense.

The challenge will be working out how to do this, and more broadly to operate as large organisations, without their own negative impacts on the climate and natural environment.

Technical solutions will be important, but it will also require fundamental changes to modes of core business and decision-making. This is likely to be even more difficult and collaboration across institutions, as well as across and outside the sector, will be key in making it happen.

If you’d like to join the Community of Practice on Sustainability in Strategy and Planning, get in touch with

3 responses to “Climate change will affect every part of universities’ work. Here’s what they need to do

  1. I think we have passed ‘bend’ and tweak scenarios for universities. It will take a while to catch on though – likely when, we in the UK, begin seeing the ‘weather weirding’ and non-linears.

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