Friday, 17 April 2015

On sustainability

Just to give you a break from HE election fever, some thoughts on sustainability.

We recycle in Wales too ...
A few years ago (2010-11 to be precise) HEFCE required English universities, if they wished to continue to be eligible for capital funding, to commit to carbon reduction strategies, and encouraged universities to aim for a 40%-50% reduction by 2020, based on a 2005 baseline. Brite-Green consultancy (with whom I have no connection) have published a report and league table at the mid-point in this process, highlighting progress or lack thereof. The Times Higher picked up on this story, and the underlying report is well worth a read.

I want to take the question a little further, though. The HEFCE action plans relate to direct carbon emissions by universities, and action plans concentrated on measures which would reduce universities’ direct consumption of energy. So more efficient lighting; insulation; new windows, combined heat and power plants and solar were all amongst the strategies. This is all good, and certainly to be applauded. But to me it is an approach aimed only at complying with a particular piece of legislation, rather than trying to address climate change in a joined-up way.

One significant omission, for instance, was the carbon emitted by travel by staff and students. Not only the day-to-day travel to and from work and study, but travel by staff to conferences around the world, or by international students to and from university at the start and end of the academic year. There’s no easy answer to this (and in fact one of the greatest benefits of university is that it exposes people to different cultures and practises, and helps one to see things in very different ways), but if the world stopped being such an easy place to travel within (either because of fuel costs, or conflict, or perhaps increasing unacceptability of plane travel) then universities do have a problem.

There’s a second dimension too. Universities which have funds to invest are coming under increasing pressure from students to disinvest from the oil and gas extraction industries – see for instance the pressure being put on Oxford in this regard. Will genuine action to reduce carbon emissions become more important to future cohorts of students (and alumni)?

One to puzzle on. But in the meantime kudos to the universities doing well in reducing their emissions, and a ‘try harder’ to those who aren’t. It does matter.

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