Leader: On your marks, get set ..

Despite some progress, this year's Green League reveals that universities are still failing to deliver a lead on sustainability

July 3, 2008

It is ironic that the very institutions carrying out the research that informs the public on global climate change are often not terribly good at acting on their own understanding. So in a week when scientists are warning that Arctic sea ice could break apart at the North Pole this year, it is cold comfort that there has been only a slight improvement in environmental performance across the sector in the second year of the People & Planet Green League.

It is a lack of progress that will disappoint Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, who wants to see universities adopt a pioneering approach to sustainability that other sectors can follow. But it's a failure that others find deeply frustrating. "We could be leaders of the field and, for God's sake, why shouldn't we be? We're talking education here, we're not churning out industrial processes," says Iain Patton, executive director of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges.

In the Green League, no university scored full marks on energy sources: 13 used more energy from non-renewable resources than the previous year, only ten universities received full marks for ethical investment and overall 15 institutions were marked as "failed".

Nevertheless, there have been some successes. Many institutions have now appointed a green manager dedicated to ensuring that all departments and faculties are behaving in a sustainable way. Where such an appointment has been made, it has often resulted in a university moving up the table.

And there is no doubt that the existence of a league table has galvanised the sector. "The Green League ... gave universities a massive shock last year, and everyone's very competitive - they want to go up the league," says one new green manager. "It had a great influence."

Where there has also been improvement on last year is in terms of policy, which is yet to translate into measurable outcomes. So although most universities are now showing that they are addressing climate change by producing a set of guidelines about how the organisation should behave, this has not yet produced significant results in terms of reduced consumption of gas, electricity and water and increased levels of waste recycled. Of the 117 universities with environmental policies, 101 were written or reviewed in the past two years.

Although it is unlikely that students will choose an institution on its green credentials alone, such concerns are important to a generation of environmentally conscious young adults. Because of this, many universities are now also pushing to ensure that climate change management is written into the curriculum. As well as becoming green universities, they are turning out green students prepared to live in the modern world and manage businesses operating in a difficult ecological time. "We're giving people the skills and values for life - and what an opportunity, what a responsibility," says the EAUC's Mr Patton.

But there is still a long way to go before universities can fulfil Mr Rammell's ambition of providing a lead on climate change. Real results on consumption and recycling levels are expected next year and there will be big questions asked about allocation of resources if, after a two-year drive including the hire of dedicated staff, little has been achieved.

In the meantime, congratulations to the University of Gloucestershire, the greenest of them all. And also to this year's highest climber, the University of Huddersfield, up 63 places.

But back in the Arctic, the melting ice is a reminder of what this is really all about. And in the words of comic Lenny Henry, who may not be an expert on climate change but surely has a point: "The global warming scenario is pretty grim. I'm not sure I like the idea of polar bears under a palm tree."

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