How universities can ‘walk the talk’ on climate action


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

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

Typically, we see our role as researching, teaching and thought leadership. But we are also large organisations with significant emissions footprints. For example, the University of Melbourne has over 9000 employees, 50,000 students, a $A2.4 billion operating expenditure – and approximately 200,000tCO2-e reported in 2019.

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

COP26, the annual conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, is coming up in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November. With countries’ emissions still growing and current pledges to reduce emissions insufficient, this conference will be critical to ‘keep 1.5 degrees alive’.

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

What universities can do

Universities, in their own right, contribute significant greenhouse gas emissions. For example, they produce emissions on campus through burning gas and emitting refrigerants, using electricity to power buildings, academics flying to conferences and students travelling to and from campus.

University action is often aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals and implemented through multi-year sustainability plans, which are roadmaps to guide targets and action, coupled with annual reporting as a transparency and accountability mechanism.

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

A number of global alliances have emerged to drive ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in universities, including the UN-affiliated Race to Zero campaign for universities and colleges and the International Universities Climate Alliance.

Ambitious climate targets

Universities are beginning to lead on reducing their greenhouse gases.

One way of understanding how ambitious universities really are in their greenhouse gas reduction targets is their emissions reporting transparency and their target quality or comprehensiveness.

Universities consistently report and cover their ‘scope 1’ and ‘scope 2’ emissions in their targets. Scope 1 emissions are the direct emissions produced by universities, like natural gas consumption on campus for heating buildings.

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

This is only part of the story, though. Scope 3 emissions occur because of the activities of the university, but outside of their direct control boundary.

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 realising that their activities are responsible for the emissions and so they need to account for them to properly ‘walk the talk’ on climate action.

For example, UNSW is taking a leadership position by comprehensively reporting all its scope 3 emissions and committing to a 1.5°C-aligned target, including total value chain (scope 3) emissions, which translates to a 30 per cent reduction by 2025, 50 per cent reduction by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.

University College London has committed to being a net zero carbon institution by 2030 for all its carbon emissions, including scope 3 emissions. Their pathway to this target includes a 40 per cent reduction in energy use by 2024.

Governing bodies have emerged providing guidance and certification for decarbonising.

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

Climate Active is the Australian government’s program for certifying an organisation’s carbon neutrality, requiring organisations to calculate their scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, reduce emissions where possible and offset any remaining emissions (the latter as a transitionary measure).

University of Melbourne, enhancing our ambition

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

Pursuant to its Advancing Melbourne strategy, the University has identified climate change as a key global challenge and established Melbourne Climate Futures at the beginning of 2021 to lead on this challenge at the University.

We realise that an essential component of demonstrating such leadership is decarbonisation in our own operations and activities.

The University has already achieved its target to produce net zero emissions from electricity by 2021 through renewable energy power purchase agreements (PPAs). As well as reducing our emissions, this has resulted in significant savings for the university. We also already offset 100 per cent of staff air travel emissions (scope 3).

The University has now endorsed some new, ambitious targets: achieve carbon neutrality by 2025 (Climate Active certified, covering scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions); and achieve climate positive by 2030. These targets bring forward a commitment under our previous Sustainability Plan to achieve carbon neutrality before 2030.

What next?

Greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets are only the beginning. Universities are vital hubs of teaching, research and thought leadership on climate change.

What staff, students and societies do with the knowledge and experience they gain at universities might also be considered a source of scope 3 emissions. The University is developing its ambition in these areas through the next iteration of our Sustainability Plan, due out next year.

In this way, we also have a responsibility to ensure 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 be pushing frontiers in many ways.

Other universities are adopting their own initiatives, which are also important contributions to decarbonisation. We accept the responsibility of a leadership role, and we know other institutions feel similarly.

We want to collaborate and bring great ideas and activities together in a comprehensive approach for how universities can walk the talk on decarbonisation.

By Associate Professor Ben Neville and Rebekkah Markey-Towler, University of Melbourne

Learn more about working with the University

Banner image: Picture: Shutterstock

First published on 25 October 2021.

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