Are higher education institutions reducing their greenhouse gas emissions?

  • Times Higher Education launches a new report that examines the performance of higher education institutions in transitioning to net zero.
  • The report investigates the 566 universities that submitted data against SDG 13, which is a call for climate action.
  • Of university leaders polled by Times Higher Education, 80% said the SDGs are a benchmark against which they operate.
  • But only just over half of the institutions that participated in our SDG 13 ranking actually have targets for achieving net zero emissions.

As the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) approaches and the climate emergency warning horn grows louder, a new report from Times Higher Education (THE) examines the performance of higher education institutions around the world in reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions and going to net zero.

The report is linked to THE impact rankings, which focus on understanding the progress of higher education against the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Entitled ‘The race for net zero: the performance of world universities‘, it takes a magnifying glass to the 566 universities that have submitted data against SDG 13, which is a call to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

Thanks to decades of academic research, universities have been at the forefront of tracking global climate change and warning humanity of the potential repercussions of inaction. Of the university leaders surveyed by THE, 80% said the SDGs are a benchmark against which they operate.

But only just over half of the institutions that participated in our SDG 13 ranking actually have targets for achieving net zero emissions; and only half of them include indirect emissions associated with their institutional activities, such as purchased goods and services or business travel in their targets.

Image: Times Higher Education

These indirect emissions, known as Scope 3 emissions, are probably the most important to measure and reduce for higher education institutions, given that academics traveling abroad for conferences and international students traveling to and from host countries should probably be included in this category.

According to the COP26 Universities Network, in the UK alone, student flights account for 18% of higher and higher education emissions, with university flights contributing an additional 4%. But even among universities that say they measure Scope 3 emissions, it seems the vast majority don’t even include international student travel in their calculations.

Image: Times Higher Education

Higher education institutions will continue to be key players in the race for net zero emissions, regardless of their own operations; through their research, education and awareness, they can have a transformational impact on society. Universities around the world have started working with governments and businesses to help them understand and control their emissions, and ultimately meet their net zero goals.

Institutions are also responsible for educating the leaders of tomorrow so that they understand what is meant by environmental sustainability and how to achieve it. Universities are a vital cog in the global machine when it comes to solving the greatest challenges in the humanities, both now and in the future.

But universities are also large organizations with a large carbon footprint themselves, and they should set an example for other industries by setting and meeting ambitious targets and properly accounting for all of their emissions, especially when many have it. benefit of climate expertise at your fingertips. . They need to lead by example to build credibility with students and support net zero goals at the local level, where they are often the biggest employers, and possibly, therefore, the biggest carbon producers in their communities.

The best way to do this is through industry-wide collaboration. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol, a global standard developed by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, is a great place to start. The protocol provides guidance on how to measure, manage and report greenhouse gas emissions. But a sector-specific framework, such as that proposed by the UK Alliance for Education Leadership (EAUC), would ensure that activities specific to the higher education sector, such as international student travel, are routinely included. in carbon accounting.

Climate change is an urgent threat requiring decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising sea levels. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit the rise in global temperature to well below 2 ° C and as close as possible to 1.5 ° C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policymakers and civil society implement short- and long-term global climate actions in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum’s Climate Initiative supports the scaling up and acceleration of global climate action through the collaboration of the public and private sectors. The Initiative works on several lines of work to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from diverse sectors developing cost-effective solutions for the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with decision-makers and partner companies to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of a more secure climate.

Contact us to get involved.

This does not necessarily mean a one-size-fits-all approach to reducing emissions; the case studies in our report show that there is room for many different approaches to the transition to net zero, depending on an institution’s mission, vision and values.

Reports will also be essential. THE impact rankings allow institutions to measure and report on their progress towards SDG13, including their net zero commitments, and provide a tool to identify potential partners to help them on the path to net zero. . By participating, the higher education community will better understand its achievements, lead by example and demonstrate to local communities and the world at large that it is serious about net zero emissions in the education sector and beyond. of the.

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