Universities and colleges struggle to meet carbon emissions targets

A new survey shows that universities and colleges are struggling to meet carbon emissions targets.

Image of road sign with CO2 emissions
Unsustainable development: Higher and further education institutions stretched to cut carbon footprint

The poll indicates that two fifths of staff involved in sustainability believe that their institutions are unlikely or very unlikely to meet 2020 targets for CO2 reductions.

Equally worrying, the poll of 548 staff in the tertiary education sector indicates that only a quarter of institutions have sustainability as a strategic priority.

The report is published by the Environmental Association for Universities & Colleges (EAUC), the National Union of Students (NUS), University and College Union (UCU), Association of Colleges (AoC) and the College Development Network.

Missed CO2 targets

It amplifies a report earlier this year by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) warning that universities and colleges in England are likely to miss 2020 CO2 emissions reductions targets by half.

The HEFCE report showed that only an 8.5% reduction had been achieved in 2013 within an overall 15-year target reduction of 43% from a 2005 baseline.

The figures from both reports are an alarm call for the tertiary sector and flag the deeper structural issues in universities and colleges that are wrestling with higher demand, higher student expectations and financial pressures.

At the same time, the business case for effective sustainability has been made. Institutions in the sector cannot afford to push this to the bottom of development agendas. And as part of this economic and cultural strategic focus, the broadest range of energy and water saving solutions need to be embraced.

Big energy savings

Our work in education and other energy intensive sectors has shown the potential for both sustainable carbon emissions reduction and big savings on energy budgets.

From LED lighting and lighting controls to water-saving solutions, heating and ventilation controls and smarter pumping solutions, and more, every institution in the tertiary sector would benefit.

The focus on simple, effective, sustainable solutions is needed as these should provide a more rapid return on investment than other more complex initiatives such as renewable energy production and water recycling, although these can be a longer-term element in any strategy.

Rapid payback with effective emissions reductions are crucial at a time when the sector needs to be seen as a socially responsible and progressive force. Its students are increasingly demanding both better learning and living environments, as well as action by institutions on sustainability.

Staff resources

But the EAUC survey points to stresses that make movement problematic, including lack of financial and staff resources. In fact, a third of college staff and a fifth of university staff polled felt that sustainability budgets would be cut.

And 25% of professionals polled said they had no plans for spreading the message on sustainability through teaching and learning in their institutions.

In the report, EAUC chief executive Iain Patton says:

“Already this pioneering collaborative survey is flagging warnings that colleges in particular are struggling with sustainability.

“We won’t be waiting for next year’s survey to act and we will be supporting our Members across the UK to ensure sustainability is a critical agenda item at senior level.”


And Graham Petersen, Environment Coordinator at UCU, advises:

“The evidence in the report is timely. The UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate talks will put a renewed emphasis on the Further and Higher Education sector to embed sustainability. Some institutions are performing well but the overall picture is not encouraging. Education funding cuts must be reversed and a strategic framework put in place to ensure institutions deliver for students, staff and their communities.”


Far-sighted management

There are, though, some very positive and proactive developments that underline the importance of far-sighted management in challenging financial times. For example, Aston University, which is fully engaged with sustainability at many levels.

It aims to meet it 53% CO2 emissions reductions target by 2020 – compared to 2005 – through a raft of changes, including student and staff engagement. Initiatives include a team of Green Champions, departmental energy league tables, planned switch offs and bike maintenance day.

At the start of next month, Aston will be the first to offer second-year undergraduates a week of teaching on climate change, the low carbon economy and impacts on society, when it hosts Carbon Week 2015 from November 2-6th.

As vice-chancellor Professor Dame Julia King says:

“Climate change is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the world today. As a University, we felt it was vital that we equip our students – the business leaders of the future – with the skills and knowledge that will enable them to make a difference when it comes to adapting to a low carbon economy.

“By taking this pioneering approach and dedicating a week of the academic term to teaching students about the impact of climate change, we not only give our students the unique opportunity to learn vital skills that they can then take forward in their careers, but we set the benchmark for other academic institutions and employers about how important it is to act on this issue now.”



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