How Universities Can ‘Speak the Talk’ on Climate Action

Universities play a transformative role in climate change research and education.

Generally, we see our role as research, teaching and thought leadership. But we are also large organizations with large emissions footprints. For example, the University of Melbourne has over 9,000 employees, 50,000 students, operating expenses of AU $ 2.4 billion – and around 200,000 tCO2-e (that’s the amount of greenhouse gas of greenhouse emissions over a period of time, measured in metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) – reported in 2019.

Universities play a transformative role in climate change research and education. Photo: University of Melbourne

Universities have a responsibility to be national and global leaders in tackling our carbon footprint and tackling dangerous climate change.

COP26, the annual conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is being held in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12. As countries’ emissions continue to rise and current emission reduction commitments fall short, this conference will be critical to “keeping 1.5 degrees alive”.

We all have a responsibility to act urgently, and universities must not only ‘speak the talk’ but also ‘walk the walk’ in leading the way for climate action.


Universities alone contribute significant greenhouse gas emissions. For example, they produce emissions on campus by burning gas and emitting refrigerants, using electricity to power buildings, transporting academics to conferences, and students to and from campus.

University action is often aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals and implemented through multi-year sustainable development plans, which are roadmaps to guide goals and actions, coupled with annual reports in as a mechanism of transparency and accountability.

This is similar to the government’s approach and the use of roadmaps, like the Victoria Strategy on Climate Change and the Gas Substitution Roadmap.

Universities not only need to ‘talk the talk’ but also ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to climate change. Photo: University of Melbourne

A number of global alliances have emerged to achieve ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in universities, including the UN-affiliated Race to Zero Campaign for Universities and Colleges and the International University Climate Alliance.

Ambitious climate goals

Universities are starting to take the initiative to reduce their greenhouse gases.

One way to understand how ambitious universities really are in their greenhouse gas reduction targets is the transparency of their reporting on emissions and the quality or completeness of their targets.

Universities systematically report and cover their “scope 1” and “scope 2” emissions in their objectives. Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions produced by universities, such as the consumption of natural gas on campus for heating buildings.

Scope 2 emissions are those generated by electricity purchased by a university and produced from fossil fuels.

This is only part of the story, however. Scope 3 emissions occur as a result of university activities, but outside their direct control perimeter.

For example, emissions from goods and services purchased by the university, business flights and investments. While scope 3 emissions are more difficult to measure and reduce, universities (and companies) are increasingly realizing that their activities are responsible for emissions and that they must therefore take them into account in order to properly “join” on. climate action.

At the University of Melbourne, we believe our actions will push the boundaries in many ways. Photo: University of Melbourne

For example, UNSW takes a leadership position by declaring exhaustively all of its scope 3 emissions and by committing to achieve a target aligned with 1.5 ° C, including total emissions from the value chain (scope 3 ), which translates into a 30% reduction by 2025, 50% reduction by 2030 and zero net emissions by 2050.

University College London is committed to being a net zero carbon institution by 2030 for all of its carbon emissions, including Scope 3 emissions. Their path to this goal includes a 40% reduction in consumption energy by 2024.

Governing bodies have emerged, providing guidance and certification for decarbonization.

The UN-aligned Science-Based Targets Initiative provides a path for companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, but does not currently assess targets for educational institutions.

Climate Active is the Australian Government’s program to certify an organization’s carbon neutrality, requiring organizations to calculate their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, reduce emissions where possible, and offset the remaining emissions (this last as a transitional measure).

University of Melbourne, strengthening our ambition

So, given the urgency of the climate crisis and our responsibility to act, what are we doing at the University of Melbourne?

In line with its Advancing Melbourne strategy, the University has identified climate change as a key global challenge and created Melbourne Climate Futures in early 2021 to lead this challenge at the University.

Universities are essential hubs for education, research and thought leadership on climate change. Photo: University of Melbourne

We recognize that an essential element in demonstrating such leadership is the decarbonization of our own operations and activities.

The University has already achieved its goal of producing net zero emissions of electricity by 2021 through Renewable Energy Purchase Agreements (PPAs). In addition to reducing our emissions, this has translated into significant savings for the university. We have also already offset 100 percent of emissions from staff air travel (scope 3).

The University has now endorsed new ambitious objectives: achieve carbon neutrality by 2025 (Climate Active certified, covering emissions from scopes 1, 2 and 3); and achieve a positive climate by 2030. These objectives highlight a commitment under our previous Sustainable Development Plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.

The targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are just the beginning. Universities are vital hubs of education, research and thought leadership on climate change.

What staff, students and companies do with the knowledge and experience they gain in universities can also be seen as a source of Scope 3 programming. The University develops its ambition in these areas through the next iteration of our Sustainable Development Plan, which is due out next year.

In this way, we also have a responsibility to ensure that the university as a whole is part of the transition to a positive climate future.

At the University of Melbourne, we believe our actions will push the boundaries in many ways.

Other universities are adopting their own initiatives, which are also important contributions to decarbonization. We accept responsibility for a leadership role and we know other institutions feel the same way.

We want to collaborate and bring together great ideas and activities in a holistic approach on how universities can talk about decarbonization.

Banner: University of Melbourne

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