To nobody’s great surprise, a month ago, Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement. While some current and former coal miners celebrated, this act of environmental vandalism not only won’t see a return of jobs to an industry where strip-mining requires few workers but it also – paradoxically – has reignited the conversation about climate change.
The response on the part of both US corporations and state and local governments showed that, as in so many other areas, the US is a country divided, as companies such as Carlsberg announced plans to reduce its brewery carbon emissions to zero, citing the withdrawal from the Paris accord as its motivation.
Such changes have rested on a clear understanding of the scientific consensus, which rests on millions of hours of painstaking research where models of rapid climate change have been validated by real changes to local and global weather systems. And yet while universities have been at the forefront of understanding the challenge of climate change, higher education remains one of the UK’s largest non-commercial consumers of energy.
For nearly a decade, there have been positive moves to address this. In 2009, the Higher Education Funding Council for England adopted a national carbon reduction target of 43 per cent by 2020, in line with the UK’s national commitment under the 2008 Climate Change Act. Most individual universities adopted this target, too.
An ongoing project, funded by Research Councils UK and led by the University of Sussex’s Jan Selby and the DEMAND Centre, is looking at how non-energy policies and practices can have knock-on effects on energy demand. Disconcertingly, Selby’s work shows that the higher education sector is not on track to meet its 2020 targets, and that energy and carbon issues now appear to have slipped down institutional agendas: most higher education institutions have abandoned their initial targets after finding them difficult to achieve.
There are good arguments, even if they are complex and thus difficult to win, for increasing our local carbon outputs if the research that they support is positive. The University of Birmingham’s collaboration with Rolls-Royce will increase emissions for the university but improve the efficiency of aircraft engines. However, most of our collective emissions are much less justifiable.
This is why earlier this month, Sussex announced an investment in the largest solar project in UK higher education as part of our new “go greener” programme. This will include investing in 3,000 solar panels fitted on buildings across campus, replacing 27,000 light fittings with more efficient LED lighting, improving heating and cooling systems and installing smart metering across our campus.
This programme, which also involves a root-and-branch approach to our transport policy, is just the start of a journey towards greatly reducing our environmental impact. As a university situated on the edge of the world-recognised biosphere reserve of the South Downs, we aim to live by our values and ensure that our campus is as green as possible.
What Selby’s research has highlighted is that across the higher education sector, there is a need for energy demand and carbon emissions reduction to be deeply integrated into university policies and practices. This isn’t a competition for kudos: while we will reduce our carbon emissions, I hope that the changes we are making at Sussex are part of a wider set of changes across UK higher education as a whole.
Adam Tickell is vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex.