How green is my university?

Academia has gone green in a big way in recent years, but some doubt whether it will make much difference to the planet. Nick Mayo speaks to scholars and students to assess the sector’s environmental record

September 12, 2019
Cubans wade through a flooded street in Havana after Hurricane Irma swept through the country in 2017
Source: Getty

Freshers are beginning to fill up northern hemisphere university campuses once again as academics return to their offices to welcome incoming students. Business as usual, it would seem.

Or maybe not. On 20 September, young people across the world will join a global climate strike, walking out of schools, colleges and universities to protest against environmental harm. The actions will be repeated the following Friday and the young strikers want adults to join them to “sound the alarm and show politicians that business as usual is no longer an option”.

The campaigner behind the movement, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, has sailed across the Atlantic to deliver her message to the UN Climate Action Summit on 23 September.

And the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, is apparently listening. He wants world leaders to arrive in New York armed with “concrete, realistic plans” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.

But how are universities to play their part in tackling this climate emergency? And is what they are doing radical enough? Most experts interviewed by Times Higher Education feel that universities can and should do more, particularly by becoming role models for wider society in their own environmental policies and targets.

Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, says that higher education institutions are ideally placed to make a difference. Every important social movement of the past half-century or so has “begun on college campuses”, he says, mentioning the civil rights, free speech and anti-apartheid movements.

When Penn State takes a “leadership position” on an issue like climate change “it really speaks to a very broad constituency and that is true for flagship universities around the country and so that’s why it is important in terms of leadership and setting an example for people to follow", he says.

More broadly, universities must “sound the alarm” about the climate emergency, says William Syddall, head of environmental sustainability at UNSW Sydney, which will be powered entirely by renewable energy from next year thanks to its own solar farm.

“And it has been sounding for a long time now, as the science points to a more and more clear consensus and a more urgent case for action,” says Syddall.

In addition to research and advocacy, universities have a duty to “teach our future leaders, who are going to be advocates of sustainability and take action on sustainability”, he adds.

Setting an example to others with eye-catching environmental policies seems to be the most popular way to teach these lessons. From January, Sydney’s Australian cousin, the University of Newcastle, will also rely 100 per cent on renewable energies, while its main campus now includes ecological conservation zones and freshwater wetland areas.

Alex Zelinsky, Newcastle’s vice-chancellor and president, says universities in all countries are “change agents” and are there to “lead society forward into where we need to go: you have got to walk the talk and lead the way”.

Fossil fuels protester

In the UK, Joy Carter, vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester, agrees. In July, she claimed that higher education institutions are “sleepwalking into a major environmental disaster, with the future of humanity at stake”.

Universities that have taken up the baton include Goldsmiths, University of London, which made headlines last month as it banned the sale of beef products from campus food outlets as part of a bid to become carbon neutral within six years. The University of Gloucestershire came top of the People & Planet University League, which ranks the environmental and ethical performance of UK universities. Last year, the university announced total fossil fuel divestment, and its director of sustainability, Alex Ryan, says the “educational mission is right at the heart” of its sustainability strategy. She wants students to leave Gloucestershire equipped to “make a difference” in whatever role they go on to in their lives.

Similarly, at Keele University, which declared a climate emergency in May and has a target to be carbon neutral by 2030, Mark Ormerod, the deputy vice-chancellor, says the institution tries to embed sustainability in “absolutely everything we do”, from research to teaching to catering. “We also embed it in the curriculum of every single programme, whether it’s history, business management, nursing or midwifery,” he adds.

The university is taking part in a trial, which will see hydrogen injected into its natural gas network, and has recently got planning permission for a solar farm.

UK universities take “climate change very seriously and are working hard to decrease their carbon footprints”, says Universities UK. They are investing in energy-saving technologies, finding sustainable supply chains and focusing on greater energy efficiency, including greener and more sustainable buildings. Many have set their own targets for carbon reduction.

But there is still so much more UK universities can do, says Jamie Agombar, head of sustainability at the National Union of Students (NUS).

They should be doing more to reduce their own carbon emissions, ensuring that students, regardless of what they are studying, understand about sustainable development and the climate emergency, divesting from investments in fossil fuels, reinvesting in renewables and putting their acres of land to good use by planting trees.

Senior leadership, who often do not see climate change as a priority, are “out of step with the young people who are really worried about what the climate emergency and ecological crisis will mean for their futures”, Agombar feels. From 1 October, the NUS sustainability team will become a separate charity, Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS), reflecting its growth in size and the importance of its mission.

Topping the THE University Impact Rankings for climate action this year was Canada’s University of British Columbia. The institution is on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 67 per cent by 2021, as it heads towards carbon neutrality by 2050. It has reduced campus water consumption by 50 per cent since 1999, and reduced natural gas consumption by 30 per cent in the past five years.

John Madden, director of sustainability and engineering at British Columbia, says that as “anchor institutions in their communities”, universities are in a “unique position” to take action on climate change.

Solar panels at the O’Mega1 power plant in Piolenc, France

However, Cameron Hepburn, a professor of environmental economics and director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, insists that efforts to cut universities’ own carbon emissions on campus miss the point when global emissions of COare 35 billion tonnes a year.

Rather it is their research and education that matter. “Mass education [is required] – a university like Oxford needs to be educating the world. Our impact on the world through our knowledge and teaching is just so much greater than what’s happening on campus,” says Hepburn.

For Jeffrey Sachs, a world-renowned professor of economics and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, the main role of universities should be to help the world to “chart the pathway to zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050”.

“In this regard, many academic researchers are very hard at work, but universities as institutions are not yet doing enough,” he adds.

The question of research and education funding in the area of climate change “remains highly pertinent”, says Sachs. “Here, universities should work with governments, businesses and foundations to increase their flow of research support to high-priority areas of zero-carbon engineering, public policy, ecology, jurisprudence, public regulation, etc.”

A paper published in the Journal of Cleaner Production in 2017 looks at the barriers to climate change research at universities.

Resources of research institutions can be stretched by the complexity of climate modelling, for example, which requires “extremely powerful (and thus expensive) computer technology”, it says.

The need for interdisciplinary approaches also creates barriers, as departments “tend to be set up around traditional subjects”.

Government priorities, meanwhile, can mean that climate change research is “vulnerable to the politics of the day”. And because it is such a political issue, climate change research “attracts significant scrutiny and attention”, making “communicating research highly challenging”.

Climate change research needs to be more “widely communicated” with a move away from publishing in specialist journals towards using research findings to “influence public discussions” about climate change, the study concludes.

Fiona Goodwin, director of operations and planning at the EAUC, the environmental and sustainability champion within further and higher education in the UK and Ireland, agrees that research needs to break out of the “academic bubble, out of the journals”.

For Penn State’s Mann, an internationally recognised climate scientist, communicating to the wider public is vital. But such communication efforts face “a stiff headwind in the form of a concerted effort by vested interests, fossil fuel interests and conservative groups that have funded a massive disinformation effort to confuse the public and to confuse the policymakers and to sow distrust [of] the scientists”.

“Probably the main obstacle to furthering university-based research and outreach is the war against universities and science that is being waged by politicians in the pay of polluting interests,” he adds.

Columbia’s Sachs agrees that the problem in the US and in many other fossil fuel-producing countries is the “money made from fossil fuels, and the ways that the money corrupts politics. Add in Trump’s disordered mind and we have a dire crisis in US politics.”

In Australia, too, the government is “not convinced of the need for strong action on climate change”, says UNSW’s Syddall. “Universities can play a role in hopefully informing people, informing governments, informing policy, so that they do begin to take stronger action on climate change, because we just don’t have time for another political cycle of inaction.”

For Oxford’s Hepburn it is “incumbent upon those of us in leadership positions in universities to put the science out there”.

In his case, this means going into rooms full of climate deniers and engaging with them, or sitting on the advisory board of Shell Oil, “which I know a lot of my students think is the enemy but if you are not there critiquing and making the point internally to these companies that they have got to transition very quickly then you are not doing justice to your role and your responsibility”.

Other barriers stopping universities from doing more include financial pressures, short-term thinking, and lack of guidance and regulation from government and sector bodies.

The EAUC’s Goodwin says it is “almost a backward step” that the UK’s Office for Students has announced plans to make voluntary the currently mandatory collecting of universities’ estate management records, which includes reporting on their carbon emissions.

Likewise, Hannah Smith, who runs the People & Planet University League, views it as “perverse really that the government are going in the opposite direction when all around them there is this huge groundswell of people power” around the climate emergency.

Gloucestershire’s Ryan feels there has been a “dropping of the ball” by sector agencies since the new student fees regime was introduced in the UK. Sector bodies like the OfS need to “incentivise universities and hold our feet to the fire”, she adds. The OfS says it is “committed to being a low burden regulator” and currently “does not have a regulatory need for the data within the estates management record. It is not an OfS requirement for providers to have carbon management plans. However, in our terms and conditions for funding in 2019-20, we state that providers should use capital funding in ways that will improve environmental sustainability, such as reducing carbon emissions.”

Goodwin is not willing to “sit around and wait for government or OfS or whoever to wake up to this” so the EAUC are calling a Climate Crisis Summit in October, which is going to bring together “all of the leading sector agencies to develop our own framework and our own targets for universities and colleges”.

British Columbia’s Madden agrees that it is as a “collective” that universities can “really drive the climate agenda”.

To that end, his institution is a member of the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3), a collection of 20 leading universities from across the US, Canada and Mexico, representing more than 4 million students.

Similarly, in an effort to promote the collective power of universities to take action, presidents from 48 institutions across the globe signed commitments to tackle global challenges including climate change and cleaner energy at the U7+ Summit held in Paris in July.

The same month, in New York, networks representing more than 7,000 higher and further education institutions from six continents announced that they are declaring a climate emergency, and agreed to undertake a three-point plan to help address the crisis.


A recycler drags a bag of paper past a heap of non-recyclable material at a sanitary landfill site in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

But is what is being done radical enough?

Alison Green doesn’t think so and has quit her six-figure salary “dream job” as pro vice-chancellor at the UK’s online Arden University in order to concentrate on trying to address the climate breakdown.

“For me, it was where could I best place my energies in order to be effective,” explains Green, who is now co-director of Transition Lab, a “‘do-tank’ as opposed to a thinktank”, which is calling on universities to take more action on climate.

“It seemed to me it’s a now or never moment. Business as usual was just completely off the table for me,” she adds.

“We are in a climate emergency, and when one is in an emergency situation and the alarm bells are ringing, then one must take proportionate, appropriate action. We can’t kick the can down the road with this one, we simply cannot continue with a business as usual model.”

Peter Harper, an independent environmentalist and a visiting lecturer in the department of natural sciences at the University of Bath, also believes it is now time to think big.

It is too late to waste any more time on “cuddly, soft, little local quality of life stuff”. Instead, “emergency medicine” is needed. He thinks the green movement has to “get off its purist high horse and face reality” and universities should focus research on large-scale solutions, such as geoengineering.

Columbia’s Sachs agrees that time is of the essence, saying: “We are in dire straits, after having squandered a quarter century since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) went into force.”

“There are no known geoengineering solutions that are safe, prudent and true answers at scale, though there are some aspects of geoengineering (such as carbon capture and storage) that will play some role. On the other hand, there are many detailed and cogent analyses showing how we could end the dependence on fossil fuels and stop net emissions from land use changes.

Of the geoengineering solutions available, one is “pretty dangerous and that is interfering with the radiation coming in from the sun”, according to Oxford’s Hepburn.

Another option is large-scale carbon dioxide removal, “which I would characterise as a necessary set of emergency measures that we need to be properly exploring at this stage. The best ones are those that take existing natural processes and speed them up.”

Mann views geoengineering as a “very dangerous prospect” with “potential unintended consequences of massive interference with our planetary environment”. He also thinks “it provides an excuse for those who don’t favour the hard but necessary work of decarbonising our economy”.

“It’s easy for them to say we don’t need to do that; we can still continue to burn fossil fuel; we will just engage in some other massive planetary-scale manipulation of our environment in the hope that it will somehow offset the effect of global warming,” Mann says.

“That is a recipe for disaster, and so I for one am very concerned about some of the discussions these days, which seem to be moving in the direction of support for not just the study of but the implementation of geoengineering. I think that is a very dangerous road to go down.”

But Hepburn finds this kind of argument to be “fundamentally wrong”, and “highly dangerous”, because “we are at a point where it’s very, very difficult to keep temperatures from rising above one and a half degrees without taking CO2 out of the atmosphere”.

“It is not some kind of get out of jail [free] card. We needed to do the mitigation, we still need to do the mitigation, and because we haven’t done it early enough, we now also need to do the carbon dioxide removal.”

Environmental demonstration

One issue that has received a lot of recent attention is the carbon footprint caused by academics attending conferences and international students flying into campuses from around the globe.

Sion Pickering is network manager for the Roundtable of Sustainable Academic Travel, based at the University of Edinburgh, which 78 institutions from across the globe have signed up to so far.

The issue of business travel was a “taboo topic in a lot of places”, so the roundtable was set up in order to talk about it and share knowledge and data, he says.

“It is one of the biggest carbon emitters that we have as a university, in Edinburgh certainly, and I think it will be the same for a lot of institutions, so if we don’t address business travel then we won’t hit our target of carbon neutral by 2040 for sure.”

Pickering stresses the importance of collective action on the issue. “If one institution was to just say ‘no business travel is going to happen ever again’ then that would just be a detriment to that one institution, so it’s about how we change the sector so that no institution loses out.”

UNSW Sydney has travel expenses policies that require people to travel in economy, for example, as the higher classes have a much higher carbon intensity, says Syddall. “But we are looking to strengthen that with a sustainable travel guideline and to improve our virtual conferencing and video conferencing facilities and start promoting those a bit better to our staff, making sure they are aware of these facilities.”

Transition Lab’s Green understands that the networking benefits of conference attendance are “important” to academics “but increasingly I actually don’t believe that that networking cannot be done online or via other means. That isn’t to say there should never ever be flying to conferences, but it has to be scrutinised and we have to ask ourselves is this justifiable and is it too much?”

Gloucestershire’s Ryan feels that “every individual academic, as a citizen and as a professional, should be questioning the necessity and the value of the air travel they are making. But, on the other side, academic conferences and exchanges can be incredibly important for building the kind of global networks and collaborations that actually can lead to more equitable research projects and implementation in different societies across the globe.”

For Penn State’s Mann, it is “somewhat misplaced” to put the focus and onus on the individual academic flying to conferences.

“We are a product of our environment and we are a product of the constraints of our environment and if we have policies that incentivise renewable energy and then incentivise a shift from activities which involve the burning of carbon then people will move in that direction,” he says.

While we should do “everything we can in our everyday lives to minimise our carbon footprint”, we “should not operate under the misapprehension that that is the solution to the problem. The solution to the problem is policies that collectively move everybody in that direction.”

Sachs feels that efforts to reduce the carbon footprint from academic conferences and international student mobility “can play a role in public awareness and in strengthened moral commitment. But they are not the scaled technological answers needed to reduce today’s roughly 35 billion tonnes per year of energy-related CO2 emissions down to net zero by 2050.” 

The carbon footprint from high-fee-paying international students jetting in is a tricky one for universities to confront. In a study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production earlier this year, Robin Shields, associate professor in higher education management at the University of Bath, examines the environmental impact of international student mobility.

The results of the study indicate that greenhouse gas emissions associated with it were between 14.01 and 38.54 megatons of CO2 equivalent per year in 2014, increasing from between 7.24 and 18.96 megatons in 1999.

The lower estimate is comparable to the national annual emissions of Jamaica (15.47 megatons) and the upper to Tunisia (39.72 megatons), the study says.

While emissions associated with international student mobility “are substantial and growing”, the emissions per student are decreasing, which Shields puts down largely to increasing regionalisation, as a growing share of international students remain relatively close to their home country.

He also points to the benefits of international student mobility, including “intercultural awareness, international cooperation and knowledge transfer”. And for NUS’ Agombar, the cost of the carbon footprint of a student coming to the UK to study is outweighed by the benefits of the education they will receive, including on sustainability: “The transformative effect of education is worth people using carbon for this purpose,” he adds.

Moreover, demonstrating green credentials may now be more of a commercial necessity than a luxury, particularly when it comes to attracting students, whose commitment to environmental issues is illustrated by their mass participation in climate strikes. Even international students themselves buy into the green ethic; according to a survey of almost 250 international students by Western Union Business Solutions, unveiled at THE’s World Academic Summit in Zurich this week, 58 per cent would boycott a university if it had bad sustainability credentials.

Vivienne Stern, the director of Universities UK International, says she has been involved in “more and more” conversations about how you can have a “kind of low-carbon international strategy. I think that there are lots of opportunities being opened up by technology that allow people to spend time studying for a UK degree but without actually physically travelling to the UK.”

“And we have seen very strong growth in transnational education and that will be a trend to watch because institutions and individuals are going to become more and more sensitive to the carbon footprint of internationalisation.”

“Having said that,” Stern adds, “I still believe there is a huge value to spending time in another system. It is important for UK graduates, as well as…important for international graduates to come and enjoy being in the UK, surrounded by our academic environment. We probably will never absolutely replace that.”

Too little, too late?

For a long time, Jem Bendell was happy to accept the received wisdom about climate change.

Professor of sustainability leadership at the University of Cumbria since 2012, he had previously worked with a range of universities, charities and United Nations agencies on projects relating to health, the environment and social justice. What they all had in common was the framework of sustainable development, which he defines as the belief that “we could somehow balance and integrate social, environmental and economic concerns as long as we were smarter and committed to doing so”.

After beginning to have doubts, however, Bendell decided to take a sabbatical for the academic year 2017-18 and spent several months looking seriously at climate science for the first time since he finished his Cambridge geography degree in 1995. Where previously he had “taken the analyses of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as authoritative”, he now began to see them as “very compromised” – and designed to “keep people in the room rather than running for the hills”. By March 2018, he had concluded that “disruption to society was not just probable, but inevitable, and most likely everywhere”. He also became increasingly convinced of “the dimensions of denial in my profession”.

Although sustainable development has “collapsed for [him] as an idea”, Bendell still believes that “we need to cut carbon emissions and draw down carbon emissions from the atmosphere, as fast as possible” – as “a last-ditch attempt to slow down climate change, not to stop it...There’s so much heating already locked into the system…Don’t pretend [we can] stop what’s already upon us: the weather which is destabilising and affecting agriculture. That is here and it’s getting worse, whatever we do, and we need to talk about how to prepare, how we deal with it emotionally.”

Reaching such a disturbing conclusion called into question Bendell’s “whole identity and sense of self-worth”. He got actively involved in Extinction Rebellion and has now reached agreement with Cumbria to go down to 35 per cent of a full-time role so he can “focus entirely on climate-adaptation research, teaching and outreach”.

But although he still operates within the academy, Bendell has become impatient with the pace of research and publication, and the many papers in his field that typically conclude, as he puts it, “If we don’t change, then we’re screwed” – rather than frankly acknowledging that “We’re screwed.”

Some of this came to a head when he wrote an article setting out his current thinking titled “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy”. Though he submitted it to Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Bendell felt unable to provide the rewrites requested by the referees and published it instead as an occasional paper for the Institute of Leadership and Sustainability Business, which he had founded at Cumbria. The published version includes a tragicomic account of his correspondence with SAMPJ, which reveals just how far he has gone beyond the norms of his discipline in both style and content.

While a referee had criticised him for not identifying a “research question or gap” based on the current state of the literature, Bendell pointed out in reply that “the article is challenging the basis of the field…there are no articles in either SAMPJ or Organisation and Environment that explore implications for business practice or policy of a near-term inevitable collapse due to environmental catastrophe…”

There was a similar disagreement about how academic articles should be written. In arguing that “disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change [would] bring starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war”, Bendell had deliberately adopted a personal and emotional tone: “You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.” One referee commented that “the language used is not appropriate for a scholarly article”.

Whether or not it breaches academic etiquette, Bendell’s “deep adaptation” paper has attracted much interest (with over half a million downloads) and caused a great deal of understandable distress. He is keen to keep engaging with the people he has affected and therefore set up the Deep Adaption Forum, whose thousand members include over a hundred researchers.

Meanwhile, in order to avoid the worst-case scenarios, Bendell wants us to look, for example, at how “we [in the UK] could produce more of our own food, no matter what the weather, have policies ready in case prices go through the roof, consider what contemporary food rationing looks like. We need to have that ready to go.” Other challenges relate to “energy security” and “maintaining payment systems for international trade”.

Alongside such practical issues, Bendell stresses the need for “more compassionate and curious ways of responding, rather than just grabbing a gun and saying ‘We have to be ruthless now and not care about the poor or the refugees’”. More surprisingly, perhaps, he also believes that embracing a sense of despair about the human future can be a “spiritual invitation” to ask ourselves “deep, deep questions”.

In abandoning the paradigm that shaped most of his earlier career, Bendell has set out an agenda that raises the deepest of questions not only for climate scientists but for us all.

Matthew Reisz

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Reader's comments (3)

Universities and the Higher Education sector in general should find ways to hold virtual conferences in order to avoid flying all around the globe for just a few days. I wonder about the Carbon Footprint of the THE World Academic Summit this week in Zurich. It must have been massive. Aren't there more climate friendly ways to meet and exchange?
I love it when we have climate change conferences - in far flung placves like Bali, where you have to, err, fly to. Cobferebces you could actually do by Skype videoconferencing maybe? OK we miss a nice summer holiday in Bali (funny these conferences are never somewhere central like Berlin in February?). Meanwhile a large source of university carbon emissions will be staff commuting. The prevalence of shirt term contracts, combined with a broken housing market, means many staff commute long distances, and have to do so by car. How about universities have a pool of staff flats, or at least some hotel-self-catering accommodation, with good security so crime, noise, is kept down, so staff car mileage can be reduced. I'm sure the VC could take a 100k in salary to help finance this.
Those who prefer to act rather just demonstrate about the CO2 problem might wish to consider how simple it is to plant a tree.