Universities set to push towards net zero target

James Coe discusses how universities can rise to the challenge of meeting sustainability commitments

James Coe is Senior Policy Advisor at the University of Liverpool and a Contributing Editor at Wonkhe

At Conservative Party Conference this month, government, business, and higher education institutions pondered a system-wide approach to getting to net zero carbon emissions.

During a conference fringe event with Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove, one participant asked him if he could enact a single planning reform, what would it be.

He deftly responded that he saw planning reform to be more like the work of David Brailsford and the Team Sky cycling team. A series of incremental reforms which improved different parts of the system to achieve cumulatively big changes.

System-wide advances

It is both true and often frustrating that big social and economic problems defy singular solutions. In something like the transition to a net zero carbon economy, we face even greater complexity.

In an event by the University of Sheffield on Jet Zero, participants reflected that sustainability in the aeronautical industry was not about one big policy measure. It could only be brought about by system-wide improvement in research, skills, labour market supply, changes to logistics, advances in green fuels, and so on.

It is an interesting lens to think about the system-wide approach to sustainability more generally. It is clearly not only a question of developing the scientific capabilities for transitioning to a net zero economy but understanding the system-wide approach necessary to meet the challenges this transition throws up.

For example, there is plainly a skills element required for this transition. A lot of focus at Conservative Party Conference discussed increasing the number of students studying engineering as a means of decarbonising transport, logistics, and other carbon-intensive industries. Looking at the number of students in these programmes, we find that engineering and technology subjects are already amongst the most popular programmes in the UK, and that there is little evidence of a slowdown in demand.

There is of course no “right” number of students studying any one programme but neither can our global sustainability challenges be solved through one discipline. The challenges are so large they require modelling impacts of behaviour changes, communicating the changes necessary to the public, healthcare professionals who will deal with the health impacts of climate degradation, and a number of disciplines aside.

Embedded in curriculum

The challenge is therefore not only which programmes are students studying but the interplay between them in training graduates to tackle humanity’s gravest threat.

This is also a question of the type of qualifications that students are taking. A number of universities (including my own) are increasingly embedding sustainability in the curriculum with a belief that all students need a grounding in the broad range of sustainability issues which will increasingly define their adult years.

Indeed, it would be a dereliction of our collective duties to not educate students in the economic, social, and political trade-offs they will be faced with if we are to avert climate disaster.

As the government seeks to introduce lifelong learning reforms, there is an opportunity to consider how the funding can be applied to enable students to take standalone qualifications at levels five and six within sustainability. There is a clearly growing market demand, moral imperative, and few fields which command such broad support to give lifelong learning entitlements the best chance of success.

Setting the right example

Universities are carbon-rich organisations with large estates, power needs, and waste management challenges. Not every bit of carbon production contributes equally towards getting to carbon zero (a shared definition of what net zero precisely means is a blog for a different day) but universities can set an example for their local areas.

This includes setting stretching net zero targets which bring other partners with them and sharing expertise with partners facing similar challenges. Adopting sustainable practices around energy use, transport, the built environment, biodiversity of campus, and sustainable education, can also encourage civic partners.

Finally, there is also the research element. If Covid-19 demonstrates anything, it’s that when universities singularly focus on enormous challenges with government backing, then enormous progress can be made. There is a question for government on how to incentivise this focus as part of the race to 2.4 per cent of GDP spend on R&D. There is a question for universities on the governance, structures, and incentives to coalesce this activity together.

In what has been a higher education landscape with consistently shifting policy, it is clear that the challenge of meeting net zero carbon commitments has both political traction and fits squarely within the ambit of universities. How universities can rise to the challenge and bring partners with them in doing so will be one of the defining questions of higher education this decade.

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