Universities must use their unique position to become sustainability leaders

University scientists have been warning for decades that we need to reduce our carbon emissions. They have discovered the mechanisms behind global warming, calculated the limits of our planet and developed solutions for how to continue in a sustainable fashion.

Hence, you would expect universities to be leaders of sustainability already, showing us how their solutions work. However, despite their scientific evidence and what they teach students, most universities are failing to deliver meaningful carbon reductions.

A recent report by Brite Green revealed that 71% of UK higher education institutions are forecasted to fail HEFCE carbon targets. This highlights a historical disconnect between research and campus operations, which must be overcome. Interdisciplinary networks with a climate vision can be catalysers to change this path and help harness the economic, cultural and environmental benefits that come with such a transition.

Climate change science and the importance of universities

Universities are at the heart of climate change research; hosting the same scientists who measure warming effects and predict what carbon budget we have left to protect us from extreme danger. University engineers develop renewable energy solutions; social scientists design near zero energy homes, advise on government policies and research behaviour change to reduce our energy demand.

Considering the availability of knowledge, one would expect universities to be beacons of innovation – running their estates sustainably in accordance with their scientific findings.

Universities educate hundreds of thousands of students every year, employ tens of thousands of staff and have an impact their local community in so many ways that what they do has a significant multiplier effect – positive or negative. They possess the knowledge not only to plan and indeed become carbon neutral ahead of other institutions, but to trigger transformative change beyond their own borders through their research and teaching – locally, nationally and internationally.

Setting a carbon neutral vision is important and feasible

It is particularly important that universities in the developed world do their bit, as 50% of GHG emissions are generated from 10% of the highest emission countries, including the UK.

Achieving carbon neutrality in terms of energy consumption is necessary to stop global warming and indeed feasible. Through their research and teaching expertise, many universities can uniquely deliver solutions for this ambitious energy transition, at the same time as strengthening and promoting their innovation, research and teaching capacity.

More importantly, through their solutions they can provide hope for current and future generations.

The Zero Carbon Britain report produced by the Centre for Alternative Technology aspires for the UK to be carbon neutral by 2030. Many other countries, e.g. Germany, Japan, Chile, and cities such as Berlin and Copenhagen have developed plans to reduce emissions to zero. Indeed, there are universities worldwide already on their path to carbon neutrality i.e. Cornell University in the United States and the University of St Andrews in Scotland to name just a few.

However, why are there so few UK universities leading the way and how can others become models of best practice?

Historically, researchers and campus operations teams only communicate on a limited basis, with researchers and teachers provided with space and facilities to deliver research and teaching to their students and the international community. Research findings themselves are communicated internationally to other scientists via specialist journals, hence often failing to inform campus operations.

Further complicating the development of climate change solutions is the interdisciplinary nature of the solutions needed, ranging from climate modelling via renewable energy technologies to sustainable architecture, behaviour change research and politics. These research disciplines are often run entirely separate, which means new communication channels first need to be established for people to come together and improve innovation output.

As an example, at the University of Sheffield, these partitions effectively weaken the engagement, support and input of researchers into delivering our 43% carbon reduction targets for the year 2020. Furthermore, although scientifically clear, the need to reduce emissions to zero (carbon neutrality) in the long-term future is not a vision officially accepted or taken forward yet.

Forming a structure for change: a carbon neutral university network

Conscious of the urgency of climate change, we started a small working group of sustainability visionaries at the University of Sheffield to research and compile a written case for carbon neutrality that could trigger further action within the existing university governance structure. This prompted the idea of forming the carbon neutral university network (CNU) to support such action – a university community that researches and communicates the climate change problem and uses internal available capacity (students, staff, facilities) to develop local solutions to reduce our carbon emissions to zero.

Before our network was launched in 2015, there was little transparency about the university’s sustainability aims and actions. To improve transparency, CNU has established a website and social media presence reaching currently up to 10,000 views each month. We have organised and run information events on climate change research and policy, on university impacts and on building efficiency, which have attracted more than 700 visitors. To reach a wider audience and provide a resource, expert presentations at these events have been recorded and are made available online.

Following the network launch, CNU received an official seat on the university’s carbon management group, which oversees energy strategy. This provides our network with first hand access and allows us to present our ideas and proposals to the governance structure. For example, a case for a large 35MW wind farm able to generate 100% of our electricity is just one of a few projects under discussion.

Since then, the initially small CNU working group has evolved into a community of more than 250 volunteers from undergrad students to managers and heads of department, along with activists from outside the university. Our community members contribute ideas, time or lead projects, while being supported by a strong coordinator team that tracks, discusses and communicates vision and project outcomes.

I received a fellowship at the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures to support work on the initial CNU network experience and vision in a Carbon and Sustainability Strategy (CaSS) proposal for the university. The proposal describes the underlying reasons for a carbon neutral vision, the situation at our university and the first steps forward based on working strategy examples from universities around the world.

It suggests firstly, putting in place a carbon neutral university goal and secondly, forming a structure that can develop and drive a plan to deliver this vision. This strategic proposal has been well received. It aims to initiate the development of detailed plans to embed sustainability in university business through an overarching focus on carbon neutrality.

Our network now provides a hub structure for climate change action at the university, which previously didn’t exist.

Volunteers at any university can establish a CNU network at no initial cost. It translates the passion and expertise of the university grassroots community to start and/or support carbon reductions. Our CNU network created a new foundation for a whole range of sustainability activities. It provides a focus point for future ideas, connects the right people to develop a transition plan, and with additional administrative funding, it can provide an important sustainability hub over the long term.

We need more universities to become sustainability leaders by harnessing their unique innovation ability to show the feasibility and benefits of strong carbon reduction solutions to the world. Interdisciplinary communities, such as the CNU network, can trigger this urgent transformation.

If you want to find out more or need help to start your own network, please get in touch via our website:

Photo by Kyle Emmerson  

Christian Unger
Founder and co-chair of the University of Sheffield’s Carbon Neutral University network


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Anthony Marsh
Anthony Marsh
6 years ago

I wonder what share of the carbon reductions to date have been achieved simply by universities reducing their portfolio of institutionally owned residences (and therefore the emissions associated with them).

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