Universities offset to 'shirk' their green responsibilities

Groups criticise institutions using quick fixes to meet emission targets. Hannah Fearn reports

August 13, 2009

Universities have been urged not to resort to quick fixes such as carbon offsetting in their attempts to meet strict government targets for reducing emissions.

Environmental campaigners say institutions may be using carbon-offsetting schemes - which allow them to buy "credits" from emission-reduction projects - as an excuse to carry on as usual, despite the introduction of tough new rules.

They worry that universities believe they can "buy" their way out of their responsibilities, offsetting their emissions rather than reducing them.

Last month, the Higher Education Funding Council for England revealed that universities will face stiff financial penalties unless they cut emissions by at least 34 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050.

Carbon offsetting sees organisations investing in renewable energy or planting trees to replace the carbon they consume, often with the aim of becoming carbon neutral.

Concerns about climate change have spawned a large carbon-offsetting industry - there are now numerous organisations that make these investments on behalf of paying members.

The University of Liverpool, the University of Westminster and the University of Central Lancashire are already offsetting, as are The Robert Gordon University and Heriot-Watt University. Others are believed to be considering the approach.

Iain Patton, executive director of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), said that carbon offsetting was "just an excuse to operate as normal".

"It misses the point entirely. The point is doing the right thing - decarbonising our economy by seriously reviewing how we manage and design our institutions," he said.

"I just don't think that offsetting is a credible way of doing that."

Mr Patton said one university told the EAUC that it had already become carbon neutral. "I asked it how and it said it had bought a bit of rainforest. It hadn't changed its behaviour at all. That clearly isn't an option we would approve of."

People & Planet, a student network that ranks universities based on their sustainability in its annual Green League, agreed that offsetting posed a problem.

Louise Hazan, campaigns co-ordinator at the network, said: "Universities should not be offsetting their emissions, full stop.

"Carbon offsetting only delays the urgent domestic action needed to cut a university's own emissions and develop innovative, community-driven solutions to climate change.

"The higher education sector can and should be leading the low-carbon transition needed in the UK, rather than shirking its responsibilities. All universities should invest now in securing their own transition into sustainable institutions, or risk being left behind by those already leading the way in the sector."

She added: "They will face much higher costs in the future if they fail to act now."

However, Uclan said the money invested in offsetting was well spent, adding that the approach was used to counter the impact of its staff's business-related air travel.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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