Universities ‘must try harder’ to reduce impacts

Most universities do not have effective policies in place to reduce their environmental impacts despite recent improvements, a survey has found.

Only 14% of UK universities have implemented an environmental policy and set targets to reduce their impacts, a survey by student campaign group People and Planet (P&P) has revealed.1 The ‘green league’ survey, which is supported by WWF-UK, rates environmental management and performance at the UK’s 129 universities. It is based on emissions data from 2006/07 submitted to the higher education funding councils and a questionnaire sent to universities in March 2008.

P&P looked at whether universities employed a full-time professional environmental manger, published an environmental policy and if they had conducted an audit of their impacts. It also looked at levels of waste recycling and use of renewables as well as water consumption and emissions of CO2.

P&P used the university degree classification system to rank performance. It awarded a first to just 18 universities - 14% of the total surveyed. The group says these institutions "have the building blocks of change in place which can be used to drive forwards continual improvements in environmental performance." The top three scorers in this category were the universities of Gloucestershire, Plymouth and the West of England in Bristol.

The University of Huddersfield, which came eighth, improved its ranking by 63 places to earn a first by increasing its recycling rate and cutting CO2 emissions. It has also employed a full-time environmental coordinator and a sustainable travel coordinator.

A further 23 universities gained a 2:1 denoting "reasonable environmental performance" but with "room for improvement".

Performance at 34 universities that were awarded only a 2:2 "cannot be considered satisfactory", P&P says. These institutions "must try harder". "Thirds" were given to 24 universities which, according to P&P, demonstrated an "utter disregard for meeting the challenge of climate change" (see table).

A further 10 universities were not marked because they failed to provide sufficient information. These included City University London, Stirling and Liverpool Hope universities.

Among the key findings are that 97% of universities have a publicly available environmental policy, an increase from 61% in 2007 when the first survey was published. However, only 12 universities regularly reviewed their policies, which also contained improvement targets with deadlines.

There were 70 full-time environmental managers in universities. This is a 25% increase - 18 new posts - on last year. Universities that conducted green audits increased to 73 from 31 in 2007.

Some of the findings should be treated with caution. P&P says 66 universities are buying energy from renewable sources through their supplier or from their own on-site generation - an increase on 51 in 2007. The survey also suggests that 71% reduced their CO2 emissions from energy consumption over the last year. Total CO2 emissions from energy usage fell by 3.5%.

However, consumers can no longer count electricity bought from suppliers through a ‘green’ tariff as zero carbon, according to new guidelines from the Environment Department (DEFRA). This is because suppliers are likely to have already counted it towards meeting their own legal requirements (see p 4  ).

The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges promotes sustainability among its 230 member institutions. Executive director Iain Patton said there had been a "remarkable improvement" in performance over the last year, partly driven by the green league, but much more needed to be done.

"Further and higher education should aspire to be lighthouses of sustainability in estate management and in the knowledge, skills and values they teach young people," he said.

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