I am surprised that we have gone up so much," says Grant Anderson, Nottingham Trent University's environmental officer. "I had anticipated a jump next year when the policy started taking more effect, so hopefully we can stay up in 2010."
With the university investing £1 million in carbon management this year, no one at Nottingham Trent should be surprised that it is leading the higher education sector on green issues. The money was spent on sustainability projects including an automatic PC shutdown system for 6,000 computers and the virtualisation of university servers, and it made all the difference. In 19th place last year, Nottingham Trent tops the 2009 People & Planet Green League.
Published exclusively by Times Higher Education, the Green League table provides universities with the most comprehensive benchmark on sustainability. It uses data submitted by institutions to the campaigning group People & Planet and estate management statistics gathered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England for institutions across the UK.
This year's Green League table includes, for the first time, a score based on the scope and quality of universities' carbon-management plans. These plans have become essential, as the Climate Change Act 2008 requires greenhouse-gas emissions in the UK to be cut to at least 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. Five-year carbon budgets set by the Government are due to be unveiled this year.
A carbon-reduction strategy for universities is being developed by Hefce, which will set a sector-wide target. It stated in its 2008 grant letter that capital funds would be linked to performance on green issues. Fiscal penalties for poor performance are expected to come into force by 2011.
On carbon reduction, the Green League table shows a mixed performance. Some 85 universities have a publicly available carbon-management plan with a specific time-bound carbon-reduction target in addition to a "baseline that includes direct energy use". As for carbon-reduction targets: 45 universities have targets of less than 2 per cent a year; 55 are aiming for decreases of between 2 per cent and 4 per cent; and just have lofty goals of 4 per cent reduction a year.
Some institutions, such as the University of St Andrews, have set targets to cut their carbon by 100 per cent by 2012, which makes others "seem downright lax", according to Richard Roaf, who leads the Go Green campaign at People & Planet. "We can't leave it all to a small number of leading institutions," he says.
"The main reason we introduced it is because carbon really is the key issue with climate change. Hefce has said all universities need a carbon-management plan. The Green League has a really important role to play in ensuring that universities have them and that they mean something.
"What we're keen to see is not just that the sector overall is meeting its requirements, but that each institution is taking on that responsibility and looking comprehensively at its carbon emissions," he adds. "We were very encouraged that more than two thirds of universities had carbon-management plans. Some universities have been pioneering this for years. What we want to see is not just leading universities doing it."
The overall message is also one of improvement. The high rate of response to the league, with more institutions than ever submitting data to Hefce's request for estate management statistics, has meant that there has been greater transparency and accountability on green issues for 2009.
"There has been remarkable improvement across the whole higher education sector, with universities putting in place the basic building blocks needed for change and some pioneering institutions coming up with radical, inspiring ideas," Roaf says. "This change has been driven by student activists who are demanding that universities start tackling the challenge of climate change."
The Green League makes success quantifiable: almost all universities now have a publicly available environmental policy, and gained full marks for it, meaning that it is monitored by a senior member of management staff who sets practical targets to reduce environmental impact over nine areas including transport, water and waste.
A total of 85 universities now employ full-time staff dedicated to sustainability, compared with 70 last year, and 111 have developed schemes that formally involve non-estates staff in environmental management. "It's an amazing shift," Roaf says. And 38 universities now have ethical investment policies. The scope and quality of these policies varies, but the tally marks a major improvement on last year when just 17 institutions had a policy in place.
At Nottingham Trent, success has been down to planning. "It's all about setting up a good structure around which to work. You need that structure to get everything moving forward, and so you know where to prioritise work," says Anderson.
The university, which has five staff working on environmental issues, is part of the EcoCampus project, based at Nottingham Trent, which also benchmarks improvement in environmental management across the sector. Nottingham Trent recycles 46 per cent of its waste, working towards a target of 50 per cent. Regeneration work on its Grade II*-listed Newton and Arkwright buildings, expected to be completed by Christmas, will see municipal waste used as fuel.
Other high-performing universities say that introducing environmental management systems through EcoCampus has helped improve their ratings.
Victoria Hands, environmental and sustainability manager at the London School of Economics, which came second overall, says: "Our vision for the future is a zero-carbon, zero-waste university campus, producing leaders who can tackle challenges such as sustainable development and climate change."
Sir Howard Davies, director of the LSE, adds: "Our enthusiastic and committed staff and students will be delighted that their hard work has been recognised. It is not so easy to go green in the heart of London."
At Oxford Brookes University, which took third place this year, Harriet Waters, sustainability manager, credits Janet Beer, the vice-chancellor, with boosting performance by championing green issues since her appointment in 2007.
Waters also welcomes the new carbon rating. "As regards carbon management, we have been doing it for years. We have piloted it for the sector," she says. "We have put a lot more resources into sustainability as a university and we have gone from having one full-time individual working on sustainability to four full-time equivalents. That means people have been able to focus on transport and energy. We're also widening our approach and looking at the responsibility of a university as an institution."
One aspect of this is driving to and from campus, which Waters is keen to stop. "It's an issue that some students choose their university on, which is ridiculous. There could be more work done on that."
Despite the successes identified, the Green League table also highlights issues that still need addressing. Although 70 universities increased the amount of waste they recycled, 60 increased the amount of waste produced per head in 2009. The data show that 56 universities get their energy from renewable sources, a drop from 66 last year - although it is worth noting that Hefce's definition of what counts as renewable has also tightened up over that period.
The Universities UK Sustainable Development Task Group has met several times over the past year. The group is overseeing the joint UUK/Hefce consultation on the development of a methodology to link at least part of future capital allocations to carbon reduction.
But despite its work, only 30 universities have a carbon-management plan comprehensive enough to include staff and student business trips, perhaps because this can be contentious among academic staff (see box, opposite). Only five universities' plans include emissions generated by travel between students' homes and their university at the start and end of term, particularly taking into account international students.
"There are some institutions that are still reluctant to engage," says Richard Rugg, head of public sector at the Carbon Trust. "There are reasons for that. Proper management of the risks that climate change presents takes time, and you have to prioritise it. Not all universities have done that, and not all universities - such as the high-profile wealthy ones - feel they need to take this seriously."
Of the top ten institutions in the 2009 Green League, just one is a pre-1960 university. "The newer universities that want to establish themselves are more likely to market themselves on their environmental credentials. They're thinking freshly about what a student responds to and what a new curriculum should look like. They have been more flexible and more nimble," Rugg says.
The biggest improvers since the 2008 league were also newer universities.
Northumbria University climbs 90 places from 111 to joint 21. Andrew Wathey, the vice-chancellor, says: "We're working across the board all the time on the university's response to green issues. Recycling is important, and we are committed to recycling everything. We demolish and we recycle 90 per cent of the waste from (new) estate developments. It's not just what happens every day of the week, it's what happens when you do a big project as well." The university has seen a 51 per cent rise in the number of staff cycling to work this year and has given £10,000 to the students' union to help spread the green message around campus.
City University London rises by 74 places in the table, from 105 to joint 31. It has set up a network of green champions on campus, installed solar panels and introduced careful travel planning over the past year. Malcolm Gillies, the vice-chancellor, says: "We are delighted to see our work on reducing the university's environmental impacts independently recognised, and especially pleased that this comes from a student-led organisation. We have come a long way, but it is important to continue to look at what more we can do for the future."
The Royal College of Music and the University of Wales, Lampeter, both rank poorly. A spokeswoman for Lampeter says it is too small a university to warrant the full-time environmental officer that could have netted it additional points. The Royal College of Music features in the Green League for the first time in 2009 and already had plans to improve performance.
"We wanted to supply the data for the first time and see how we measured up," a Royal College of Music spokesman says. "We have published an environmental policy for the first time, and that is a five-year plan for how we're going to improve by 2014." The college recently hired someone who will be responsible for environmental management.
The University of Chester's performance slipped over the past year, with the institution falling 71 places. A spokesman says the university is "both surprised and disappointed" with its position, having spent £3 million to improve its estate by installing double glazing, upgrading thermal insulation and planting 32,000 trees and shrubs. "The university has increased its staffing and responsibility for ensuring environmental sustainability and is extremely active in promoting the issue of sustainability in its curriculum," the spokesman says.
Only four institutions did not submit sufficient information to People & Planet to be ranked in 2009.
Commentators are impressed generally with the sector's performance. "I feel there is a sea change going on; there is a mindset change. Carbon is such a high-profile issue now," says Iain Patton, executive director of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges. "We have funding council funds starting to be linked to carbon performance. I think the penny is starting to drop. Institutions have got no choice now, with the legislation and funding."
He is, however, concerned about the emphasis on dedicated members of staff. "When a university starts to dip its toe into the water, it suddenly realises how big a pool it is. There is a whole world out there, and you need the staff. I would say that stronger universities don't have dedicated staff - they write it into the job description for everyone."
Getting every member of staff involved in sustainability also helps to encourage the flow of ideas within the university, which has been slow to happen. "There is pioneering, world-leading research going on. Unfortunately, the institutions at which that research is happening aren't benefiting from it," Patton says. "You have universities that are leading experts in sustainable structures, but when their estates departments go to build new buildings, they go to the same consultants and get the same old thing. There is a real missed opportunity. It has to be a whole-institution approach. We have got to help them not just look out, but also to look in."
People & Planet expects progress to continue in the next year. It is already planning changes to the league table to make its rankings increasingly comprehensive.
Hefce's estate management statistics now collect information on details such as campus cycle-parking spaces and the number of single-occupancy car journeys taken by staff and students. The group is considering including some of these data next year.
Roaf says that concerns about the impact of the recession are unfounded, and points out that universities are already aware that being green can also save money in a tough financial climate. University College London's carbon-management plan is a good example - it cost £100,000 but is set to return savings of £165,900 this year. "The staff who have been put in place across the sector are generally driving performance, but they're also driving costs down," he says.
Meanwhile, the leading universities in this year's rankings are setting best practice for others in a sector that is, overall, performing well.
"Most universities are taking this seriously, so for us just to be in the top ten, let alone at the very top, is great," says Nottingham Trent's Anderson.
FORGET THE PLANE, TAKE THE TRAIN: EVERYONE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
For David Sedley, Laurence professor of ancient philosophy at the University of Cambridge, academics have been too slow to acknowledge how their actions contribute to climate change.
"I am interested in continuing an academic life without doing damage to the environment," he says. "Many academics have lifestyles that require much travelling. When this involves flying, that is very environmentally damaging, especially when one factors in the increased harm done by greenhouse gases released into the upper atmosphere, as well as the sheer number of tonnes of carbon released per passenger per flight. If you want to know what is the most damaging thing you can legally do to the planet in a single act, the answer is probably: get on a plane."
Sedley acknowledges that his own response to the challenge involves some abstemiousness. "I'm trying to restrict myself to one return flight a year, and in the past two years I have turned down four or five trips to North and South America and one to Korea. But I am aware of few other academics who are trying to alter their style of travel in response to the dangers of global warming."
Keen to keep in touch with colleagues and the latest research, he continues to attend conferences in Europe but almost always travels by train (often overnight). This is no hardship but just, he says, "a return to the lifestyle of my teens and twenties, when flying was too expensive and most of our travelling was done by train".
There are a number of reasons why travel has become such a major unexamined feature of academic life. It is often seen, Sedley says, as "one compensation for a not particularly well-paid career". Moreover, promotion, and hence pay, can depend on international recognition. Although this is largely achieved through publications, visibility at major conferences clearly doesn't hurt. And such events provide important intellectual stimulation, too.
Although Sedley suspects that many of his colleagues view his avoidance of air travel as "harmless eccentricity", he is worried that "future generations will view us even more negatively than we view our ancestors who profited from the slave trade. I want to be able to face my grandchildren when they ask whether we really went on flying, even though we knew how much it was doing to destroy their environment."
The academy must change its ways of planning and organising conferences, he argues, putting accessibility ahead of exotic locations. For international committees and the like, we need to opt for virtual meetings wherever possible, although this is "barely yet even on the academic agenda". And universities and funding bodies may need to reconsider their rules for travel, since "cheapest means of travel" clauses may encourage people to rack up air miles with budget carriers.
"While drastic cuts in the number of conferences might alter the fabric of academic life," Sedley concludes, "a more modest reduction would do little harm. All I am saying is that environmentally damaging travel is one of the issues academics need to take account of. But I fear that may happen only when climate change becomes a hideous reality close to home, as it already is beginning to be in some parts of the world."
Universities were assessed in the following categories:
- Environmental policy: Universities are allocated up to eight points for the presence and quality of a policy.
- Environmental staff: Up to ten points given for the number of full- and part-time staff with responsibility for environmental management.
- Comprehensive environmental auditing: Up to eight points awarded for how well an institution has assessed its environmental impact.
- Ethical investment: Four points allocated to universities with the strongest policies guiding financial investment.
- Carbon management: A new category introduced after last year's Climate Change Act. Six points given for the availability of a carbon-management plan with targets for carbon reduction over the coming five years.
- Fair-trade policy: Universities with Fairtrade Foundation accreditation are awarded two points.
- Environmental impact of students' union: Two points allocated to universities whose students' union has achieved a bronze, silver or gold award at the Sound Impact Environmental Awards, recognising the role of students' unions in promoting sustainability.
- Energy sources: Up to six points given to universities acquiring energy from renewable resources.
- Waste management: Eight points available according to the proportion of total waste recycled.
- Carbon emissions: Up to eight points given to acknowledge low emissions per capita.
- Water consumption: Institutions using the least water pick up eight points.