Almost a quarter of UK universities are expected to miss the higher education (HE) sector’s carbon reduction targets for 2020 according to People and Planet, which has blamed the removal of government and funding council support for ‘dwindling’ performance.
The student network recently completed its 2016 university league, which audits and scores 150 publicly funded UK universities on their policy and action for environmental and social justice. Nottingham Trent University topped the list after consistently being ranked in the top ten universities by People & Planet over the last seven years.
However, this year’s results show a four-year downward trend in carbon emission reduction across the sector, with only 24% of universities still looking likely to meet sector carbon reduction targets of 43% by 2020.
Despite awarding 30 universities a “First” class degree for their environmental work, People and Plant claim the overall picture looks less encouraging that these top performers. Its results show 60 institutions lacked any evidence of a senior role with responsibility for sustainability issues, which may leave them in a poor position to make key sustainability decisions.
In addition, the organisation noted a decrease in university environment staff as one third of universities now appear to not have a dedicated environment team at all.
People and Planet claimed a number of drivers to promote sustainability in the HE sector have “all but disappeared” since 2009 and the election of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government the following year.
Prior to this, a number of initiatives were in place that were encouraged by government policy and linked to university funding, such as the allocation of funds for environmental sustainability of in the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) sustainable development agenda.
The grant latter to HEFCE from what was the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills contained this specified funding every year until 2014 when it was removed.
Similarly funding known as Capital Investment Frameworks (CIF 1&2), which had been linked to a requirement to reduce carbon emissions, has now reportedly been removed from the funding agenda.
People and Planet list a number of similar cases which have seen support for climate action dropped from universities funding, drawing attention to a serious decline in opportunities since 2009.
Hannah Smith, co-director of research and campaigns at People & Planet, said: “The future looked set to harness the energy of 150 institutions of research, creativity, innovation and knowledge, not to mention the 5 million students per year.
“Right now the policy landscape looks bereft of any support or incentive, which we find extremely concerning when you consider the opportunity the UK has to meet carbon reduction targets through the ambition of world-class universities.”
Since 2005 the HE sector in England has managed to achieve a 10% reduction in carbon emissions. John Bailey, head of sustainability at the University of London who has conducted his own research into university carbon targets, added: “If the future emission reductions follow the same trajectory [it] will achieve a 26% saving by 2020, a big difference from the 43% target set by the sector.”
Despite this declining policy environment for carbon reduction, People & Planet’s university league table has showed some continuing progress in the sector, with over a quarter (42) of all UK universities now committed to divest away from the fossil fuel industry.