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How can universities respond strategically to the climate emergency?

As more universities declare an emergency, Claudia Zwar and Simon Lancaster of Nous consider how institutions should tackle the issue of climate change
This article is more than 4 years old

Claudia Zwar is a Senior Consultant with Nous Group.

Simon Lancaster is a principal at Nous Group.

Under growing pressure from students, many UK universities have declared a climate emergency, with several writing strategies for how their institution should tackle climate change.

This is critical work. But it risks falling apart when universities’ climate ambitions come into conflict with their other strategic goals.

To make their climate strategies a success, universities need to see sustainability as part of their core business. They also need a framework that helps them make the trade-offs between the different public goods they deliver – including environmental protection, education and new knowledge – in a deliberate and strategic way.

Student concerns are reaching boiling point

The pressure is rising on universities to act on climate change.

At Newcastle University’s freshers’ week last year, dozens of students lay sprawled on the lawn outside the students’ union as part of a staged “die-in”. The protest was organised by the student chapter of Extinction Rebellion to draw attention to the scale of environmental damage and demand decisive action on climate change.

Around the same time, thousands of students at the University of Nottingham, De Montfort University, and the University of Hull walked out of lectures and took to the streets as part of the global student climate strike. It will not be long before the school children marching beside them begin university, where they will likely demand that their institutions be as serious about this issue as they are.

Many universities have ambitious plans

A common response to this pressure has been for universities to declare a climate emergency. The University of Bristol, the University of Glasgow, the University of Warwick, and Goldsmiths, University of London are some of the UK universities that have made this statement, which recognises the scale of the crisis and the need to act urgently in response.

Some of these universities are developing climate emergency strategies. The University of Leeds, for example, has developed seven principles to tackle the climate crisis, including reaching a net zero carbon footprint by 2030. Glasgow’s net zero target is set for 2035. The University of Edinburgh recently published its “Zero by 2040” strategy, which it describes as a “whole institution approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation”.

Nous Group recently visited the University of Exeter to speak to its Climate and Environment Emergency Working Group. Exeter declared a climate emergency in May 2019. When we visited, it had just finished its Climate and Environment Emergency White Paper, which sets out more than 100 recommendations for how the university can reduce its environmental impact and help to tackle climate change.

Many of these recommendations are ambitious, including hiring a DVC Sustainability and cutting all long-haul flights by 50 per cent. Working Group members told us this was driven by a strong desire “to ‘walk the walk”: to model the environmental behaviours demanded by their students and recommended by the university’s own world-leading climate scientists.

Universities face many competing demands

University climate strategies are having their moment. And they are rightly ambitious, given the importance of this issue to their students and communities. But the more ambitious a university’s climate strategy is, the more competing demands it will throw up – demands universities may struggle to reconcile when they come to implementation.

This is because even when universities want to walk the walk, their incentives and performance measures remain unchanged. They still need to deliver large amounts of high-quality research. They still need to recruit internationally. They still need to invest in their campus and to attract discerning students in an increasingly competitive environment.

One of the biggest areas for university emissions, and therefore the biggest opportunity for reduction, is travel. The University of Exeter estimated that travel would account for at least 21 per cent of its total carbon footprint. Travel is classed under “Scope 3” emissions – the indirect emissions that occur upstream and downstream as a result of an organisation’s activities – and is not always included in an organisation’s total carbon footprint. But Scope 3 emissions comprise a significant proportion of total emissions – the University of Exeter estimates Scope 3 accounts for 84 per cent of its total emissions – and are likely to be a part of future climate change strategies.

This presents challenges. Academics fly around the globe to present their research and form international partnerships. Research that is the product of international collaboration tends to perform better on impact, and in turn, enhance a university’s reputation. But all this flying by the university’s employees increases its carbon footprint. How does the university respond if limiting flying prevents international collaborations being formed in the first place?

Another tension: international students are potentially big emitters. The University of Exeter estimated that its carbon footprint from travel would be far higher if it included emissions from international students flying home. So, should the university stop trying to attract international students, or further, stop any coming in the first place? How does this square with many universities’ internationalisation strategies, which aim to grow the proportion of international students in the student body?

One that is more difficult still: Imagine that a scientist must fly to the Galapagos Islands to conduct research on climate adaptation. How do we balance the ‘cost’ of the carbon she emits in doing so, with the overall environmental benefit of a world better prepared for rising sea levels?

The University of Exeter’s White Paper is open about these issues. It proposes a series of initiatives designed to balance the university’s internationalisation and education agenda with its commitment to lowering emissions. These include holding an international virtual summit on how academia can reach global goals without trashing the climate; creating an Exeter Climate and Environment fund from a top slice of international student fees; and developing climate compatible research and education partnerships with other universities.

But by no means is the challenge overcome. There is a real danger that when universities try to make these decisions, their sustainability ambitions end up being overridden by other strategic goals. The University of Edinburgh, for example, saw its emissions rise between 2010 and 2015, despite having set a target to reduce them by 29 per cent in its 2010-2020 Climate Action Plan. The reason for this was that Edinburgh’s climate targets did not anticipate the “scale and context for growth in the period” in terms of student numbers and the university’s estate. This speaks to how difficult it can be for universities to balance their environmental commitments with their performance, in a policy environment that continues to incentivise growth.

Sustainability must be incorporated into strategy

Universities’ approach to climate action needs to balance their climate ambitions with their other strategic ambitions in a deliberate way.

The first step is to incorporate sustainability into a university’s institutional strategy. A member of Exeter’s Climate and Environment Emergency Working Group told us during our visit, “Once we started doing this [Climate Emergency White Paper], we realised we were trying to change how the whole university works.” One working group recommendation was that each of the university’s strategies be made “climate compatible”. But at the moment, most sustainability strategies being written by UK universities are contained in separate documents to their main strategic goals.

There are several benefits to making these one and the same. It rockets sustainability up the agenda, with targets for which the executive is accountable. This prevents sustainability being something delivered “over there” by the sustainability team, secondary to a university’s core business. It also helps a university to frame its environmental ambitions in strategic terms. This is more than just carbon reduction targets. It may include the impact its climate scientists deliver, the value of their sustainability-related courses, and the influence it has over its local region’s approach to combating climate change.

Once sustainability is one of multiple strategic goals, a university is better placed to make trade-offs between them. Suddenly, it has a framework to make the difficult decisions outlined above. It seems reasonable for the scientist to fly to the Galapagos Islands, because she is contributing to two of the university’s core missions – promoting action against climate change and delivering impact through research. The university might think twice, on the other hand, about the researcher who flies to Vancouver each year to give a paper at a week-long conference. The flight contributes to the university’s strategy in one sense, but perhaps not enough to justify the carbon cost.

Under this approach, environmental impact becomes a factor in every equation, without treating all emissions as the same. It recognises that some activities will be “worth” their carbon footprint, because of the value they deliver to the university or the benefit to the environment in other ways. This approach can also help a university to sequence its environmental activity, beginning by removing the emissions with the least strategic importance (such as emissions from the campus cafeteria or using a renewable source for electric lighting in halls).

Universities can set an example to other sectors

Universities are natural leaders in combating climate change and the flurry of recent environmental targets is overdue. But there is a real risk that without placing sustainability in a broader way of thinking about success in higher education, these climate strategies create more hot air.

Universities have an opportunity to think strategically about their approach to the climate and environment emergency, and to provide a model to other public institutions that may soon follow their lead. This generation of students and citizens will demand nothing less.

3 responses to “How can universities respond strategically to the climate emergency?

  1. Writing as AUDE’s ( sustainability lead, part of AUDE’s role here is to support our Members and act as a partner for those who are committed to this agenda. For instance, AUDE co-developed the Sustainability Leadership Scorecard (SLS) [] together with the EAUC [] and Arup, and this gives our universities the current best-in-class way to think about the entire sustainability challenge at an institutional level – not just estates. As more of us recognise the need to act and set ambitious zero carbon targets, the kind of structured approach to thinking about sustainability that the SLS provides is more and more important – estates teams (like ours at Nottingham), VCs and entire institutions are increasingly seeing the value of that approach. The SLS is based around the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals increasingly embedded in university strategies. It is collaborative by nature, encouraging sharing of ideas between universities, and so gets over the unhelpful competitive/rankings approach of some of the alternatives. Every UK university needs to be using it.

  2. Delighted to see this topic being covered today in advance of #letstalkvalue tomorrow. integrating the sustainability strategy into the wider institutional strategy is essential to provide a holistic picture of value and to enable institutions to tell a better story about the value they create for stakeholders and society. We have a live tweet chat @advancehe_chat to discuss the from 11 to 12.20 (UK time) on the 11th February and a live (free) webinar so continue this really important conversation

  3. Great to see this topic covered. A number of us on the international education side are very concerned about the environmental cost of global mobility and we are actively looking at how we can make the business of international ed more sustainable. If you’re interested, please join or follow the Climate Action Network for International Educators.

    We are running a (virtual) climate action summit in May this year too – details coming soon — or @CANIEglobal on Twitter.

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