On climate, UK universities are leading where the government is trailing

Anna ford argues that in showing what universities can do on climate change, they can push other countries to start making changes

Anna Ford is an independent science and climate communicator and formerly head of media at the University of Sussex.

Universities are uniquely well placed to lead on climate solutions. That opinion seemed to be shared by every panellist at University UK’s conference on universities, sustainability and the climate crisis last month.

But while this may be true, the political context is getting tougher in the UK. We are facing both a government which is back-tracking on climate policies and a growing culture of climate scepticism among young people. So given this, what is the role now for universities in responding to the climate crisis?

The case couldn’t be clearer that universities must continue to do their utmost. Not just because, after more record temperatures and intensifying extreme weather events, climate change has become palpable. But also because students expect their universities to do more on climate change. A 2020 survey of 16-18 year olds by Winchester University showed that fewer than half (46%) rated universities as doing a good job on addressing the climate crisis.

We know that students are not shy if they feel their universities are slacking; a spate of UK institutions were spray-painted orange last Autumn by Just Stop Oil protesters.

It’s not just students that care

And it’s not just students holding universities to account. At last month’s UUK conference, Labour’s Kerry McCarthy, who is the Shadow Minister for Climate Change, referred to news reports that UK universities had taken £40 million from the fossil fuel industry since 2022. McCarthy gently said she hoped that these universities “were on a journey to finding other sponsorship sources”.

The truth is that, despite a sprinkling of negative news stories, universities and their scientists have long been at the vanguard of responding to the climate crisis – whether through their research, teaching, or sustainability policies. UUK’s 2022 #MadeatUni campaign showcased dozens of examples.

And UUK reports that many of its 142 university members are aiming to beat the UK government in the race to Net Zero. Nearly nine in ten (86%) member institutions have Net Zero targets for scope 1 and 2 emissions (ie, for their own estates and activities) and 65% have targets for scope 3 emissions (ie, from procurement and travel etc).

Some universities are shining lights. The University of Reading topped the current People and Planet University League table with its plethora of nitty gritty policies on all sorts of not-very-glamorous topics like estates and catering.

The University of Manchester claimed the Green Gown Awards crown in 2023 for its ambitious and well-plotted ‘zero carbon without a net’ plan to reach ‘true zero’ by 2038.

In 2021, LSE became the first UK university to be verified as carbon neutral.

Last year, the University of Sussex announced it would set aside 42% of its campus for nature, with its VC, Sasha Roseneil writing: “Now is the time for all universities that have stewardship of significant areas of land to extend their sustainability focus and commit to increasing biodiversity on their home territory.”

Goldsmiths announced a climate-inspired beef ban as early as 2019. Student bodies from eight universities have now voted for entirely plant-based campus menus (they are: Warwick, Stirling, Cambridge, Birmingham, London Met, Queen Mary, UCL, and Kent).

And what else can universities do? Well, perhaps the subject most dear to my heart as a climate science communicator – they can promote the hell out of their research.

Getting the message out

The University of Reading is really savvy at this. They are the home of the now-ubiquitous climate stripes which visually demonstrate the pace of warming. They also produced a tantalisingly simple video showing the link between heatwaves and flash-flooding, which went viral.

The University of East Anglia was behind the headlines, along with the Met Office, for its research showing that 2023 was the hottest year on record.

Exeter launched reports on the carbon budget and global tipping points from COP28, collaborating with the UK’s Science Media Centre to land decent coverage amid a very competitive media landscape. (I know from having been on the ground at COP28 promoting ocean science…)

LSE is lucky to house the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment whose team publish globally authoritative research and are particularly adept at reacting quickly to climate news with informed commentary.

Imperial’s climate change poster competition for young people will see billboards displaying winning artwork by an 11 year old. It’s a smart campaign which deftly engages young people as creators but will also no doubt open hearts and minds across the UK.

Less charmingly, Surrey pulled off a feat just last week by finding a way to engage Daily Mail readers on climate change with research linking the risk of a warming UK with more diarrhoea outbreaks… And in my view, if that’s what it takes to get the general public to pay attention, so be it!

So, UK universities know what to do on climate. Perhaps the task now is to pull together, share best practice and to challenge each other to do better through events like the UUK’s last week and initiatives like the UK Universities Climate Network, the #MadeatUni campaign and the Green Gown Awards.

As Dustin Benton of the Green Alliance said at the conference: “The UK’s university sector stands out as a leader globally even as the UK is stepping away from leadership – so please, please do carry on.” Student doctor Amit Singh of Mock COP, who also spoke at the conference, agreed:

The UK university sector has a very strong role to play in being a change-making voice as compared to the UK government. And in showing what we can do, we can push other countries to start making changes.

3 responses to “On climate, UK universities are leading where the government is trailing

  1. Positive speak on climate progress in our institutions is incredibly misleading and rings hollow. Years have passed, unsustainability intensifies. It’s time for the sector to own up to gross climate failures, and call on its community more before it’s forced to later down the line.

  2. As Britain’s universities have become more and more like businesses, so they excel in corporate greenwashing whilst engaging in unsustainable dashes for growth. The reality of our impact on the climate is rather less bright. In many academic circles it’s still seen as unusual to refuse to travel by plane, or to say that you take the train to Europe instead. And the University of Sussex campus has 1300 car parking spaces…

  3. ‘Incrementalism’ – that’s not really incrementalism as guided by 0’s in spreadsheets, carbon credits and other efficiency measures devoid of reality of carbon cycle – that sit atop a real regress in terms of climate sustainability – growth logics, marketisation, internationalisation, sunk cost bias etc all with their own unsustainability and embodied carbon. In other words, business as usual / regress.

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