How to stay connected with the world without destroying it

In their efforts to shoulder their responsibilities to the planet, how do universities preserve the spirit of global connectedness that is so essential to research and learning in the modern world?

At Lancaster University sustainability lies at the heart of what we do. Our wind turbine generates around 14% of the university’s electricity each year, our campus has received a green flag award for 10 years in a row and we offer incentives to support our staff to travel sustainably and affordably.

We ranked seventh in the United Kingdom and joint 26th in the world in the new QS World University Rankings: Sustainability, which measure and compares sustainable impact from universities across the globe.

Even so, we recognise there is more that can be done.

In 2020, we declared a climate emergency with the aim to become carbon neutral across key areas by 2035 and this commitment is at the core of the university’s recent strategic plan, which outlines sustainable changes we pledge to make in response to a growingly resource-constrained world.

We are making strong progress and are now one of the highest producers of renewable energy of all UK universities, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

We are not alone. Universities around the world are taking their commitment to the planet ever more seriously and embedding that commitment into strategy and action.

Across the sector, while we see bold commitment to reducing scope 1 emissions, direct emissions such as fuel, and scope 2 emissions, indirect emissions from purchased energy like electricity, we are seeing much more tentative steps around scope 3 emissions, indirect emissions such as travel and purchased products and services. Why is this?

In a recent report from Universities UK International, Abigail Whiteley reported on positive developments around the climate crisis in the higher education sector, namely:

• Between 2021 and 2022, the proportion of our member universities committed to net zero targets under scopes 1 and 2 increased from 61% to 75%.

• Between 2021 and 2022, the proportion of our member universities committed to net zero targets under scope 3 has increased from 53% to 59%.

• Between 2021 and 2022, the proportion of our member universities committed to a reduction in scope 3 emissions has increased from 5% to 6%.

The problem of travel

So, what do these figures tell us? In the case of scopes 1 and 2 there is, of course, greater ownership of direct carbon emissions, which are more amenable to technical and engineering solutions.

Scope 3 is more about influence on suppliers and changing behaviours. No better example of this complex challenge is that of carbon emissions related to travel which make up a very significant part of the carbon economy of universities.

A recent analysis in Nature illustrates the contradiction between the mission of universities to educate and exchange knowledge (including about sustainability) and the associated impact on the planet by pointing to the impact of a recent conference of the American Geophysical Union – the world’s largest Earth- and space-science conference: “We calculate that its 28,000 delegates travelled 285 million kilometres there and back – almost twice the distance between Earth and the Sun. In doing so, they emitted the equivalent of about 80,000 tonnes of CO2 (tCO2e). This is about three tonnes per scientist, or the average weekly emissions of the city of Edinburgh.”

So, what can we do about it?

Interestingly, for the European counterpart of this meeting – the annual General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union (EGU), which attracts a significant 15,000 delegates to Vienna each spring – there is a growing shift towards surface travel and away from the more carbon-costly air travel. It even has its own #TraintoEGU social media hashtag.

Similarly, for an international collaboration of ~500 people working on an experiment sited in Japan, collaboration meetings were based at two hubs: Tokai Japan and CERN Geneva. Joint meetings were in the (European) morning with the two hubs connected via Zoom; more specialised meetings were in the (European) afternoon or the (Japanese) morning and were tailored to be pertinent mainly to those on a particular continent.

It’s just one model that could potentially help to reduce flights and therefore carbon emissions and, to encourage this approach, Lancaster University has launched a new Travel Decision Tree, designed by the Lancaster Environment Centre to question the imperative to travel and to encourage digital alternatives to complement sustainable travel choices when international mobility is necessary.

Student mobility

But staff travel is only a fraction of the challenge when we think about international student mobility, which is perhaps why so many universities hesitate about setting targets for scope 3.

This is where transnational education can play a key role in providing alternative choices for international students.

Lancaster is a global university with a network of overseas campuses in China, Germany, Ghana and Malaysia, offering validated Lancaster degrees. Our campuses form a key part of our global community, with one-third of our undergraduate students studying overseas and a strong mobility programme equipping our graduates to become truly global citizens.

We are now looking to extend this global Lancaster offer to Indonesia, offering the opportunity to access our degree programmes without the need to travel internationally.

Whilst we have been establishing new connections between our individual campuses over time, the pandemic travel restrictions and climate concerns have become two major accelerants of digital connectivity, which is now a central element of our efforts to manage scope 3 travel emissions vis-à-vis our new sustainable travel guidance.

Since early 2020, we have established a range of bespoke digital platforms that enable our students to experience the benefits of internationalisation without having to travel.

Innovations include:

• Annual Undergraduate Research Conference: a dedicated online forum taking place each March and bringing together students and staff from all strategic partners.

• COP26@Lancaster University: a week-long, hybrid festival featuring 39 events, including a student-led webinar contributed by over 100 staff and students based in China, Germany, Ghana and Malaysia.

• Future Leader Experience and Global Leadership Forum (co-host): two suites of development programmes designed for students from home and overseas campuses, providing opportunities for them to develop leadership skills and engage with senior leaders from different industries.

• Digital Classrooms: a cross-campus teaching initiative focussing on globally relevant and locally distinctive issues, in development with staff from global campuses.

To support these initiatives, we have deployed comprehensive online training materials, entitled ‘Embrace Digital’, ensuring the project inclusively supports our staff and students across our global locations.

While not carbon neutral, this digital connectivity does enable the lowering of carbon intensity of international activity, increases the accessibility for attendees, as well as providing a new model that transforms global engagement.

Our sector, like many others, faces an existential challenge to respond to the climate emergency, but by sharing solutions in the spirit of open learning and collaboration – at which universities excel – we can lead the way in responding.

Professor Simon Guy is pro-vice-chancellor global (digital, international, sustainability) in the vice-chancellor's office at Lancaster University, United Kingdom. He spoke recently on this topic at the recent Going Global Asia Pacific conference.