6 reasons why Universities should be setting science-based targets

[Update] Find out how we help the Higher Education sector

We have frequently discussed science-based targets and the work of the Science-Based Targets Initiative in our blogs. It’s inspiring that we now have a coalition of companies with approved Science-Based Targets that represent US$3.4 trillion in market value – roughly equivalent to the companies listed on the London Stock Exchange.

While educational institutions are not currently able to have their target formally approved by the Science-Based Target Initiative, there’s a big opportunity for the sector to adopt the principles and methodologies used. 

The UK university sector is facing uncertainty from a multitude of challenges. This is triggering universities to examine their identity, their values, and their purpose. Universities are exploring how they can become more transparent, how they can build their brand and how they can remain competitive in a sector that is ripe for disruption.
Given this context, and the fact that most of the sector has set carbon targets to 2020, could now be the right time for universities to reconsider their climate change objectives and look to set ambitious and long-term targets in line with the Paris Agreement?

In this blog, I explore six reasons why universities should be setting science-based targets. 

1. Show leadership and align targets with your purpose
Universities are institutions of research and education, and communities of teachers and scholars. They exist to advance knowledge and our shared understanding. When it comes to climate change universities must take a position that reflects this purpose. This means that they should be setting ambitious and long-term objectives aligned with the prevailing science, and they should be using these objectives to engage with their community on climate change and show leadership in action.

2. Use a scientific approach to determine your fair share
Science-based targets are based on the concepts of carbon budgets to calculate the level of decarbonisation required to keep global temperature increase below 2°C and pursue efforts for 1.5°C. If we consider that the UK university sector has its own carbon budget to keep global temperature increase below 2°C, then it’s important that each individual university understands what its fair share of this budget is.

If universities are not setting targets aligned to this common ambition, then they could be considered as rejecting the climate science or not pulling their weight in global efforts to combat climate change. This also signals an expectation that other institutions will have to take on more responsibility and do more than their fair share.

3. Look beyond 2020
In 2010 the, now defunct, Higher Education Funding Council for England established a 2020 carbon reduction target of 43% for the higher education sector in England. Universities then set targets to 2020, meaning most institutions are now nearing the end of their target’s lifespan.

Despite a public consultation in 2017 on decarbonisation in the public sector and higher education sector, there is little direction or guidance for universities wanting to review and redefine their carbon targets now.
Given the time it can take to navigate target sign-off and budget approval process, looking to the science-based target methodologies and levels of ambition should inform the next phase of universities’ carbon reduction efforts. To maintain momentum with carbon reduction efforts and investment programmes, targets should be adopted in advance of 2020.

4. Stay ahead of legislation
In April 2018 Claire Perry revealed that the government has asked the Committee on Climate Change to review if the UK’s current carbon targets are compatible with the Paris Agreement’s goal to pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C.
Although there is currently a lack of direction from the government on expectations for the higher education sector, there is a clear opportunity to take the initiative and set targets in line with this ambition. As well as the obvious reputational benefits, this approach will mean that innovation and creative thinking can start sooner and future changes in legislation will be less disruptive.

5. Get to grips with Scope 3 emissions
We have previously explored the opportunity for universities to influence emissions reduction beyond their estate by assessing and managing Scope 3 emissions. The Science-Based Targets Initiative requires targets to be set for Scope 3 emissions if they account for more than 40% of total emissions. This is normally the case in our experience; a UK university should expect that its Scope 3 emissions will be at least 50% of its total emissions.
Getting a better understanding of Scope 3 emissions and setting achievable targets will enhance your positive impact and give further opportunities to engage with your value chain.

6. Make the case for renewables
Science-based target methodologies allow targets to be set using market-based emissions accounting. This means that tariffs backed by renewable energy certificates can be used to meet reductions in Scope 2 emissions.

While some view this as ‘cheating’, my view is that organisations should be doing all they can to decarbonise. This means procuring renewable electricity to increase demand and in turn investment and capacity, as well as investing in energy efficiency initiatives to reduce end use.

Find out more

Lessons learned from other sectors – Find out how Tesco became the first corporate in the world to align its science-based targets with the ambitious goal to keep global warming below 1.5°C

Benchmark your institute’s performance against the sector
Do you know how your university is performing compared to all universities in the UK?

Visit the Carbon Credentials booth at EAUC and find out.

By analysing the data submitted to the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) Estates Management Record we will assess your institute’s performance in the context of its peers.

You can book a slot during the event and we will produce the report for you.