The carbon challenge

A collaborative strategy shows that universities are ready to tackle climate change, argues Sir Alan Langlands

January 28, 2010

Universities and colleges have a big role to play in tackling climate change, one of the greatest challenges facing the modern world. To meet this challenge, a carbon strategy for higher education was published on 28 January that will help institutions to make a difference.

The Climate Change Act 2008 set a legally binding target for the UK to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 compared with 1990 levels. It reflects the scientific consensus that unless we act now to reduce carbon emissions, we face potentially catastrophic temperature changes in the future. Higher education is committed to playing its part, with an interim goal to cut emissions by 34 per cent by 2020.

I won't pretend this will be easy: it will require creativity, commitment and collaboration, which is why I'm so pleased that the strategy is a joint effort with Universities UK and GuildHE, and secured strong support in the sector during our consultation over its content.

Despite recent controversies over academic emails, there should be little doubt about the seriousness of this issue. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that global warming is unequivocal and that human activity is a major cause. Unless we slash emissions, we are likely to see the destruction of coastal communities, reductions in food supplies and a rise in extinctions.

Universities and colleges are in a strong position to make a difference, and many already are. They are improving energy efficiency and managing their campus environments more sustainably. They are buying more sustainable goods and services. Researchers are investigating the likely impact of climate change and working to develop innovative solutions to mitigate its impact. Students and graduates are shaping and leading the debate. Higher education has both the opportunity and the responsibility to lead the response at all levels.

I don't doubt that the recession has made investment decisions more difficult, but this area can provide direct savings for institutions and play a big part in economic recovery. Government-commissioned research shows that the UK is the sixth-largest environmental goods and services economy in the world, employing 880,000 people. This sector is worth £107 billion a year to the UK economy, and has the potential to grow by a further £45 billion over the next decade. University research, collaborations and spin-offs should play a big part in realising that potential.

So this is not just a cost for individual universities and colleges; it is also an opportunity. Energy savings and new technologies can reduce costs at a time of financial restraint. Cranfield University, for example, expects to cut its energy costs by almost £1.1 million a year by the end of 2013 thanks to its detailed carbon-reduction strategy. It is consolidating its buildings on a single campus, introducing improved energy systems and cutting travel costs.

Keele University aims to become carbon-neutral in energy terms by 2018 and is piloting more efficient energy sources including coal bed methane, wind and water power, and geothermal energy. All institutions in the sector will need to show similar ambition.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England will play its part by linking capital investment explicitly to carbon performance and by supporting targeted investment to cut emissions.

These ambitious targets show the size of the challenge and the strength of our commitment. The joint strategy should make it easier to co-ordinate efforts nationally and internationally. But although it offers ideas about some of the best ways to cut emissions, we are not planning to prescribe solutions. While the targets are national, there will be different institutional responses. The challenges of a city centre university are different from a campus-based one.

The strategy should help to focus efforts in areas that offer the greatest carbon-reduction returns and identify issues that need further action. Higher education must use its creative talents to help the UK play its part in addressing climate change. I know universities and colleges will rise to the carbon challenge.

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