This article is more than 1 year old

Mission zero

Former universities minister Chris Skidmore has published his Independent Review of Net Zero and there is a lot for universities to ponder
This article is more than 1 year old

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

The Independent Review has taken place over the past forty-two months with a view to considering how the UK can meet its net zero commitments.


The Review is impressive in its scope. It is built on over 1,800 evidence submissions and roundtables with experts of all kinds. The central thrust is that there are lots of good ideas and well-meaning initiatives around reaching net zero by 2050 but time is quickly running out for any practical action. The Review is broad and realistic in acknowledging the economic and social impacts of the rapid (albeit likely not rapid enough) transition to a net zero economy.

The report is split into two parts. The first part considers the economic opportunity in reaching net zero more quickly while the second part looks at the practical steps for society, businesses, and individuals in reaching net zero. In total, the report spans 340 pages so for the benefit of Wonkhe readers I’ve taken a grab bag of ideas that are eye catching, interesting, or frankly fit within my interests of research and sustainability.

Tax and spend

First up the University of Derby provided evidence that there should be tax relief for businesses using low carbon technologies in their operations. In the Autumn Statement the Government announced a review of R&D tax credits which effectively makes doing R&D activities for smaller businesses more expensive while making the same activity cheaper for the largest businesses. One mitigation would be a special R&D low carbon tax credit that rewards businesses who collaborate with universities on sustainability activity. It would simultaneously help bring innovation into businesses and incentivise the uptake of sustainable activities.

On wider sustainability activity the report looks at universities and their estates. The University of Birmingham and its partnership with Siemens to deliver technologies that support the better use of space and reductions in embodied carbon is given as an example. More broadly as universities continue to look at the purpose of their estates with more flexible teaching and working there is surely opportunity to use their physical footprints as living labs for sustainability initiatives of all kinds. There are few, if any, places with such a single concentration of buildings, researchers, technology, and infrastructure to build partnerships. This could not only benefit humanity more broadly through research but bring financial benefits to universities in IP and cost saving.

On cost saving there is a helpful case study on net zero and procurement tucked away on page 201. The case study looks at anchor institutions in Preston, including its universities, approach to buying more goods locally to recirculate money within the local economy. Community wealth building as this approach is known is highlighted as an opportunity to put extra money in local businesses and in turn increase their capacity for sustainability activity. University procurement is notoriously complex, and massive in its scale, but there is undoubtedly more work to be done in circulating money locally.

Shared opportunities

The report also brings to the fore the convening power of universities through the example of the University of Manchester’s 50,000 actions initiative. This is an online platform that encourages students and staff to take an active role in the University’s sustainability work. The University of Liverpool is another example of a university that is engaging students around collective sustainability actions.

The Review speaks to a wider sentiment that universities are not only going to be central to any measures to reach a net zero future but that in working toward that future there are distinct opportunities for them. Opportunities in strengthening their civic mission through their role as anchor institutions. Economic opportunities in cost saving and commercial development. And opportunities to engage students and staff in a policy issue that will be central to their lives and livelihoods.

One response to “Mission zero

  1. The headlong, oft blinkered, drive to try and attain net-zero needs some serious attention and work, how it can be achieved without massive energy access issues, and the resulting danger of civil unrest, if not bloody revolution appears not to have even been considered. Universities certainly have a part to play, if only to curb the excesses of the politicians, in addition to putting their own houses in order.

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