Three things the government’s sustainability strategy for education must do

As universities take action on climate change, Universities UK’s Julie Tam calls for the government to deliver the appropriate support

Julie Tam is Deputy Director of Policy at Universities UK. She leads UUK’s work on climate action and the financial sustainability of universities.

Next week, the world’s attention will focus on the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Discussions will shape how we live each day and the future of our planet.

The UK government aims to consult on a draft sustainability strategy for education around COP26. The strategy is an excellent opportunity to harness the power of universities to create a better world for future generations.

How can this opportunity be seized? There are three things we wish to see in the government’s strategy.

1. Universities should be central to the government’s education sustainability strategy

The government’s strategy will cover education sectors from early years up to higher education. It must recognise the breadth of impacts that universities deliver in fighting the climate and ecological emergency.

These impacts cover educating students and staff on climate justice, driving adaptation through research and innovation, advising national and international decision-makers, forging local partnerships, and developing sustainable campuses.

All universities have a responsibility to their students and stakeholders to make evidence of their impacts as visible and accessible as possible.

2. A sector-led approach to net zero target setting and reporting

Today we publish commitments of UK universities to set targets that support the government’s plans for reducing emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 and achieving net zero by 2050 (or devolved government equivalents).

Universities will report progress against their targets in a transparent way. Many UK universities are going far beyond the government’s plans in setting their net zero targets.

The speed of a university’s journey depends on their individual circumstances, such as the age of their estate and financial circumstances. The government’s strategy should recognise the level of ambition that universities have and the diversity of journey to net zero across the higher education sector.

A mandatory one-size-fits-all approach to target setting and reporting by government, which does not take into account individual circumstances, would be counterproductive and ultimately meaningless to addressing the climate emergency.

3. Government backing universities to take action

Taking action requires financial backing. Funding decisions are some of the strongest levers that government have to tackle the climate emergency.

The actions set out in the sustainability strategy must be backed by the forthcoming spending review – or the strategy will fail.

Universities require sufficient funding to invest in new technologies and infrastructure to achieve net zero and to fulfil their education, research, and leadership roles. Many universities are striving to develop the next generation of climate leaders, through dedicated COP26 scholarships.

If government stepped up and played its part in matching funding, even more individuals could make a difference and inspire others. The reach of universities alongside the weight of government would create a powerful joint effort.

Universities across the UK are taking action on all fronts to create a better global future but we cannot do this alone. The government’s sustainability strategy needs to empower universities to be ambitious, innovative, and collaborative. The strategy must not only be a plan – it must deliver the changes we all wish to see.

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