Challenging Connections: The Role of Tertiary Education in the Transition to Sustainable Cities

By Will Jenkins

Last week the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) hosted its Annual Conference at Leeds University. Now in its 19th year, the conference brought together over 400 delegates for three days to explore the role of the tertiary education sector in the transition to a low carbon, sustainable economy. The theme for the conference was Challenging Connections, with the aim of encouraging delegates to ‘look again at our connections, our partnerships and the voices we are hearing and those we are not’.

It is clear that the tertiary education sector has a unique role to play in preparing society for the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change. I have summarised four themes that all universities should aim to integrate within their sustainability programmes.

The University as an Educator

Transitioning to a sustainable and low carbon economy requires a workforce armed with a new set of skills. This demand will be partially met through the development of new teaching and research programmes, but of equal importance is the need to ensure all disciplines incorporate sustainability issues. Sustainability is inter-disciplinary in nature, and therefore requires collaboration from specialists and generalists alike.

Furthermore, Universities aim to stimulate broader interests in students through activities and societies, and are often where many gain their first taste of independence and develop key life skills. As well as delivering teaching and research programmes that meet societal needs, the university environment must also provide a wider education in sustainable livelihoods. Universities must seek to influence the attitudes and behaviours of students in order to develop the next generation of leaders that are well equipped for the challenges of the future.

The University as an Innovator

Universities are centres of knowledge and innovation that will produce the technologies and minds that enable society to transition to a low carbon economy, and adapt to and mitigate climate change.

In addition to this well understood role, John Richardson, Executive Director of the University of British Columbia Sustainability Initiative, explored in his keynote speech how universities can act as ‘societal test-beds for sustainability’. Richardson sees universities as a giant sandbox within which solutions to many of our sustainability challenges can be explored, tested, applied and shared.

The University as a Facilitator of Connections & Partnerships

Collaboration is key to sustainability, and universities are uniquely placed to facilitate meaningful and outcome focused partnerships between academia, government, business, NGOs and the community. These partnerships are particularly relevant at the city level, where sustainability challenges such as clean energy, low carbon travel, healthcare, housing and employment can be dealt with effectively through integrated planning.

During a keynote speech by Tom Riordan, Chief Executive of Leeds City Council, it was emphasised that to secure the success of a city like Leeds key players have to work together in a transparent manner to achieve common goals, particularly in the context of cuts to public sector budgets. Decision making can no longer be a linear process, partly due to the way in which technology has enabled an open and active dialogue between multiple stakeholders.

The University as a Catalyst for Change

Universities, and the students and societies that exist within them, have always been powerful change agents. This is evident internally, for example with Student Union representatives engaging in the development of their institution’s strategy, and at a national and international level, such as Glasgow University’s role in the Fossil Fuel Divestment campaign. Universities must seek to influence and shape the international sustainability agenda by demonstrating leadership in the research and teaching they provide, the way they operate and how they engage with international climate change policy.

So, How Are Universities Performing?

Carbon Credentials had the opportunity to survey conference delegates as they registered. I was interested to find out how academics and sustainability professionals would evaluate their institution’s approach to sustainability, and how this related to their carbon performance.

Figure 1: What best describes your Institution's approach to sustainability?

Figure 1: What best describes your Institution’s approach to sustainability?

Of the 62 UK Universities that completed this question the majority ranked themselves as working towards embedding sustainable practices. Interestingly, no respondents agreed that sustainability was only a reputational and compliance issue, or had not yet defined their approach. In comparison with other sectors this is encouraging, and highlights the positive impact of initiatives such as the 2010 Carbon Reduction Target & Strategy for HE in England, and the Revolving Green Fund.

When these responses are mapped against university metrics, such as carbon emissions, number of FTE staff and students and carbon performance two key findings are evident:

  1. No clear correlation between size of institution and approach to sustainability, although larger universities (over 20,000 FTE staff and students) are less likely to have fully embedded sustainability (Figure 2)
  2. Universities that evaluated themselves as having fully embedded sustainability within their universities had a lower than average emissions intensity (Figure 3). This suggests that an integrated approach to sustainability which is aligned with the university strategy does lead to a more carbon efficient estate.
Figure 2: Universities' approach to sustainability (colour), carbon emissions from energy use (tCO2e), Full Time Equivalent staff and students, and the ratio of research to teaching students (size)

Figure 2: Universities’ approach to sustainability (colour), carbon emissions from energy use (tCO2e), Full Time Equivalent staff and students, and the ratio of research to teaching students (size)

Figure 2 Average emissions intensity (carbon emissions from energy use vs. floor area) by response, and total

Figure 3: Average emissions intensity (carbon emissions from energy use vs. floor area) by response, and total

At Carbon Credentials we are helping the Tertiary Education sector to explore these opportunities through the development of ambitious sustainability strategies and carbon management plans. By engaging with internal and external stakeholders, understanding unique characteristics and considering the full range of opportunities, it is possible to define a bespoke and flexible pathway to a low carbon, sustainable university.

Carbon Credentials is hosting a free Optimised Carbon Management Planning workshop for the healthcare and higher education sectors on Thursday 23rd April. Click the button below to learn more and book your place.

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