Education and Skills

Race to net-zero: why universities must walk the walk on emissions

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A new report takes a magnifying glass to 566 universities that have submitted data against SDG 13. Image: Unsplash/Leon

Ellie Bothwell
Rankings Editor, Times Higher Education
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SDG 13: Climate Action

  • Times Higher Education is launching a new report that examines how well higher education institutions are performing when it comes to transitioning to net zero.
  • The report surveys the 566 universities that have submitted data against SDG 13, which is a call to climate action.
  • Of the university leaders surveyed by Times Higher Education, 80% of them said that the SDGs are a benchmark against which they operate.
  • But only just over half of institutions that participated in our ranking on SDG 13 actually have targets to reach net-zero emissions.

With the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) rapidly approaching, and the warning klaxon on the climate emergency getting ever louder, a new report from Times Higher Education (THE) examines how well higher education institutions across the globe are performing when it comes to reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to net zero.

The report is linked to THE’s Impact Rankings, which are focused on understanding the progress higher education is making against all 17 of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Titled ‘The race to net zero: How global universities are performing’, 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.

How they rank

Through decades of academic research, universities have been at the forefront of tracking the planet’s changing climate and warning humankind of the potential repercussions of failing to act. Of the university leaders surveyed by THE, 80% of them said that the SDGs are a benchmark against which they operate.

But only just over half of institutions that participated in our ranking on SDG 13 actually have targets to reach net-zero emissions; and only half of those 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 flying abroad to conferences and international students flying to and from host countries should arguably be included in this category.

According to the COP26 Universities Network, in the UK alone student flights account for 18% of further- and higher-education emissions, with flights taken by academics contributing a further 4%. But even among universities that say they measure Scope 3 emissions, it seems that the vast majority do not even include international-student travel in their calculations.

Image: Times Higher Education

Reducing emissions

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

Institutions are also tasked with educating the leaders of tomorrow so that they understand what’s meant by environmental sustainability and how it can be achieved. Universities are a critical cog in the global machine when it comes to solving humanities greatest challenges – both now and in the future.

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But universities are also large organisations with significant carbon footprints of their own and they should be setting a leading example for other industries by establishing and meeting ambitious targets and properly accounting for all their emissions, especially when many have the benefit of climate expertise at their fingertips. They must lead by example to ensure credibility among students and to support net-zero goals at a local level, where they are often the biggest employers, and perhaps, therefore, the biggest carbon producers in their communities.

Greener together

The best way of achieving this is through sector-wide collaboration. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol, a global standard developed by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, is an excellent place to start. The protocol gives guidance on how to measure, manage and report greenhouse gas emissions. But a sector-specific framework, like the one proposed by the UK’s Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC), would ensure that activities unique to the higher education sector, like international-student travel, are consistently included in carbon accounting.


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

Reporting will also be key. THE’s Impact Rankings allow institutions to measure and report on their progress towards SDG13, including their net-zero commitments, and provides a tool to identify potential partners to help them on the road 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 achieving net-zero emissions within the education sector and beyond.

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