Climate commission unveils toolkit for university leaders

The Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education Students and Leaders has launched a Higher Education Climate Action Toolkit to help vice-chancellors, governors and senior leadership teams in universities in tackling the climate emergency.

With 91% of students being fairly or very concerned about climate change, the commission says it is essential for university executives to “take action seriously” to meet student needs.

The “first of its kind” toolkit, which was launched at the recent Universities UK conference, “The Role of Universities in Tackling the Climate Emergency”, identifies higher education-specific critical elements vice-chancellors and governors should consider in order to advance sustainability and respond to the climate crisis.

In 2019 the Parliament of the United Kingdom set in law a commitment to reach net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 in response to the climate emergency, but given the urgency of climate action, the commission has set stronger targets.

The commission has asked universities and colleges to reach net-zero emission for scope one (emissions directly under the university’s control) and scope two (indirect emissions from electricity bought by the university) by 2030, with significant work to understand and reduce scope three (all other indirect emissions from activities of the university, for example, from travel, waste and water and investments) in this timeframe. The target is to achieve net-zero in scope three by 2050.

The critical elements identified in the toolkit will support universities to:

• Prepare staff and students to cope, thrive and move responsibly in a changing world, for example, equip students with employable skills.

• Protect biodiversity.

• Work toward climate and social justice.

• Lower and eliminate scope one, two and three greenhouse gas emissions.

The toolkit outlines five areas in which action can be taken: leadership and governance, community engagement, research and knowledge exchange, teaching, and campus management. It examines critical elements, suggested steps and resources for each one.

For instance, under leadership and governance, it suggests that universities’ senior management teams, where the university has direct investments in fossil fuels, review the investments and set out and implement a divestment strategy.

Under teaching, it suggests ensuring that all staff are carbon literate and have an understanding of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

A suggestion under community engagement is to work with local authorities and local economic partnerships and community groups to support an understanding of and opportunities for decarbonisation and adaptation measures in strategies, plans and projects.

Under research and knowledge exchange, the toolkit suggests working with local commerce and industry to support a transition to a low carbon economy.

The Climate Commission – a partnership between the Association of Colleges, the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC), GuildHE and Universities UK – is coordinating action across the further and higher education sector to produce a clear, consistent and cohesive response to the climate emergency ahead of COP26, the 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties (to the Paris Agreement on climate change), which is being hosted by the UK in Glasgow in November.

The Higher Education Climate Action Toolkit, following on from the FE Climate Action Roadmap to support colleges, serves as one of the Climate Commission’s key outputs, providing a path to strengthen climate action within the sector.

The toolkit will be a “continually evolving resource” and it adapts to new information and climate understanding.

“It offers universities the opportunity to identify the elements that should be considered when evaluating the sustainability practices within their institutions, as well as adequate climate action responses and resources,” the Climate Commission says.

Sustainability leadership scorecard

“We encourage all universities to use the Sustainability Leadership Scorecard to self-assess where your strengths and weaknesses are and to develop a gap analysis action plan,” the commission says.

The Climate Commission is calling for all universities to commit to the Global Climate Letter for Universities and Colleges, which is part of the UN Race to Zero, to show sector leadership in the lead-up to COP26.

Julie Tam, deputy director at Universities UK, said: “The Higher Education Climate Action Toolkit provides vice-chancellors and governors with a clear path to tackling the climate crisis through taking action within UK universities. Universities UK will be urging our members to adopt the toolkit at the highest level and to engage with their students to co-create solutions and opportunities.”

Judith Petts, vice-chancellor at the University of Plymouth and climate commissioner, said: “The Climate Commission is delighted to provide a valuable tool to further support the actions universities are already taking and to help them take the next steps that are so needed as we face the challenges and opportunities from the climate crisis.

“As the UK hosts COP26 this year, this is the time for universities in the UK to show we are leading the way on a global stage.”

‘Engage with students’

Marta Crispo, PhD student at the University of Sheffield and student climate commissioner, speaking at the Universities UK conference, said students are “a powerful group that can help in the implementation of the strategy. There are many passionate students already working towards the sustainability of our campuses and we urge universities to engage with us as they adopt the toolkit.”

She said: “Students make up 7% of the UK population. We will have a huge impact through our lives and careers on the sustainability of the world. We are the ones that are inheriting pollution, melting ices and extreme weather events.

“Thus, it is important to involve us in the co-creation and decision-making process of your strategy. It is our future at stake, and we want to have a say on how to shape it and how universities prepare us for the changing climate.”

In December United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on the world to take urgent action to combat climate change and praised the work of universities as “essential to our success”.

His wide-ranging call to action also challenged all organisations to examine their own contribution to carbon neutrality and, in the case of universities, this means not just through researching solutions, but also through cutting their own carbon footprint and divesting from fossil fuels as much as they can.

Speaking at a World Leaders Forum on climate change at Columbia University, New York, on 2 December, he said humanity is waging a suicidal “war on nature”.

“We are facing a devastating pandemic, new heights of global heating, new lows of ecological degradation and new setbacks in our work towards global goals for more equitable, inclusive and sustainable development.

“To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken.”

Blueprint for action

But he said the solutions are there and there is a blueprint for action in the form of the 2030 Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“The solutions are there. Now is the time to transform humankind’s relationship with the natural world – and with each other. And we must do so together. Solidarity is humanity. Solidarity is survival. That is the lesson of 2020,” Guterres said.

Most of the critical elements outlined in the UK Higher Education Climate Action Toolkit have been recommended by a team of academics and sustainability professionals at the University of the West of England (UWE), including Chris Donnelly, Dr Georgie Gough, Kirsti Norris, Paul Roberts, Vicki Harris and Professor Jim Longhurst, climate commissioner and assistant vice-chancellor at UWE.

The toolkit was designed in partnership with award-winning management consultancy, Nous Group, which works in the UK, Canada and Australia, advising colleges and universities on designing and implementing strategies to improve their sustainability and environmental impact.