Take up the green challenge

Climate change is one of the gravest threats of our age, but universities are helping to tackle it, writes David Lammy

February 26, 2009

The link between growing fruit and creating a world-class example of sustainability might not be immediately obvious, but the first harvest from the allotments at the University of Gloucestershire was another important milestone in the journey to seed sustainability at the heart of the higher education sector.

Reducing the harmful impact of climate change is one of the defining issues of our time, and the sector is ideally placed to be a major force in this area by virtue of its large estates, groundbreaking research and ability to influence the political, social and business leaders of the future.

Universities have been quick to recognise this, and there are already numerous examples of great projects in the sector. These involve people at every level, from managers and estate staff to teachers and students, and show that many institutions recognise the benefits of taking a holistic approach to energy efficiency. Everyone connected with the university has a role to play.

And while the inclusive approach exemplified by Gloucestershire and other universities deserves to be congratulated, they should also be seen as an example of what institutions across the sector should be looking to achieve.

Gloucestershire not only runs allotments for its students, it also co-ordinates the Regional Centre for Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development, which helps other institutions to share and develop sustainable practices.

It is also home to the International Research Institute in Sustainability, offers diplomas in environmentalism, world-class research, bike-loan schemes and waste-management programmes. In short, it seeks to support sustainability at the individual, professional, community and organisational level.

So perhaps it is no surprise that Gloucestershire was ranked first in the Green League of Universities 2008, sponsored by the World Wide Fund for Nature. Is it just a coincidence that by providing inspiration and guidance to its students, it was also ranked eighth out of 160 universities in terms of graduate employability? Increasingly in the future, passion and knowledge for sustainability will set you apart.

During the recent Go Green Week, organised by the National Union of Students and the student campaign group People & Planet, universities across the UK took up the sustainability challenge.

Innovative solutions abound. At the University of Salford, more than 3,000 staff and students have signed a charter for sustainable action. The University of East London offers a free-access bicycle network for staff, students and local residents, and a Centre for Sustainable Futures has been created at the University of Plymouth.

The University of East Anglia has its highly respected School of Environmental Science and generates most of its heating and electricity on site. The University of Bradford also deserves a mention: it is constructing a £21 million sustainable student village, which should be completed this summer.

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills recognises the importance of these issues and is determined to develop a higher education system with sustainability and energy efficiency at its core. This is vital if we are to meet the Committee on Climate Change's ambitious target to reduce CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

This target will require tough decisions and co-operation, but DIUS is already working with partners including the Carbon Trust, the NUS, Universities UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England to deliver it.

As well as setting targets and the overall policy framework, DIUS sees its role as an advocate and facilitator of best practice. Our Hefce grant letter links funding with energy efficiency and sets clear targets for carbon reduction.

Likewise, we will introduce the Carbon Reduction Commitment in 2010, which will set a target for all universities with electricity consumption greater than 6,000MWh/year. We are also working with other government departments to ensure that the Act on CO2 campaign reflects the needs of students.

Sustainability is something that everyone must act upon, and our excellent network of higher education institutions can help steer the way.

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