Higher education in the era of climate change

10th December 2020

New report urges universities to have zero carbon emissions by 2035 and to rethink knowledge and teaching practices for the era of climate change

The Higher Education Policy Institute (https://www.hepi.ac.uk) has published a new report, Beyond business as usual: Higher education in the era of climate change. Keri Facer, Zennström Professor of Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University, Professor of Educational and Social Futures at the University of Bristol and author of the report outlines how universities and colleges can be at the vanguard of the UK’s strategy for tackling climate change.

Drawing on powerful case studies and a robust analytical framework, Professor Facer presents recommendations for how policymakers, staff and students can approach the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change. From COP26 next year in Glasgow (the next annual meeting for the UN countries signed up to the Convention on Climate Change) to the Government’s levelling up agenda and informing the public about the changing climate and ecological collapse, Professor Facer makes a compelling case that universities and colleges will have a key role to play in addressing the climate crisis. To make the changes necessary, universities and colleges must act meaningfully, swiftly and must not ‘greenwash’ their activities.

The report argues that changes are needed both at sector level and within higher education institutions. At a national level the report argues:
  • For the development of a massive open programme of public learning as a partnership between The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the BBC and UK higher education.
  • For a ‘moonshot’ capital and revenue research fund to stimulate research and innovation needed to ensure that all UK universities and colleges have zero carbon emissions by 2035, with a 75 per cent reduction by 2030.
  • For the creation of a £3 billion National Green Livelihoods Transition Fund.
In reference to higher education providers, the report argues:
  • That universities must focus on massively reducing carbon emissions from their day-to-day operations including from international staff and student travel and commit to sustaining biodiversity.
  • That for institutions to fulfil their civic role they must educate adults away from carbon intensive work and commit to socially positive investment.
  • That universities need to get better at collaboration – building alliances between scientists, artists, politics and listening to those in society – particularly from marginalised communities who have too long been ignored.
  • That universities should start listening to students’ demands to learn what it will mean to live in the era of disruptive climate change – and how to prevent this.
  • The sector’s response to COVID proves that the rapid transformation of the kind necessary to address climate change is possible for the sector.
Professor Keri Facer, author of the report, said:

"Universities and colleges are the UK’s critical learning infrastructure – they help us think our way out of problems, invent new ways of living and adapt to change. We need urgently to harness these resources to help us, as a society, transition towards more sustainable futures.
‘We need a massive, nationwide programme of learning and innovation to help us transition – in our infrastructure, our way of life, our food systems and our values – towards a society that can survive well in conditions of significant climate disruption. For that, we need to mobilise our universities, our colleges and our great national educational institutions like the BBC and public broadcasting. It’s time we gave up on the idea that going to university is just about preparation for a business as usual economy – that is not going to ensure our young people survive and thrive in future. We need our universities and colleges to be helping students to imagine and create different futures that are not dependent upon fantasies of endless economic growth and ecological extraction.Government urgently needs to get its house in order in terms of its climate credentials. It will host the COP26 in Glasgow next year and needs to give a strong example of how it is leading the world in climate action. One way to do this is through the Green Livelihoods Transition Programme, that provides free university and college to adults looking to transition away from high carbon employment to imagine and create sustainable livelihoods.
If the Government wants to level up, it needs to invest in the people of deindustrialised towns and cities, ensure that they have educational opportunities, create new centres for green innovation and skills. To do this – you need to get the universities and the colleges on board."

Climate Commission statement regarding the HEPI Debate Paper:

“The Climate Commission for Further and Higher Education welcomes any debate to encourage universities and colleges to take the climate crisis seriously. The Climate Commission target for the education sector is to be net-zero by 2030, as per IPCC recommendations, for Scope 1 & 2 as a minimum. This is a more ambitious target than the UK Government – which ahead of the UN Climate Ambition Summit has announced a 68% reduction by 2030. However, the Government’s ambition needs to ensure the agencies and regulators also hold this ambition and actions are taken in supporting the education sector to play their part. There is much to do by the Government as seen by Ofsted’s misguided comments which are out of step by not listening to the very students they should be serving. The Climate Commission is supporting the sector in making the net-zero journey through the FE Climate Action Roadmap and the HE Toolkit, but also in taking a whole-institution approach to not only focus on emissions but to include the core purpose of institutions through their learning, teaching and research and ensuring we provide people with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in changing environments as part of the build back better agenda.” 


Notes for Editors
The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to help shape the higher education debate with evidence. It is the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded by higher education institutions and other organisations that wish to see a vibrant policy debate.

For further information, please contact Professor Keri Facer on keri.facer@bristol.ac.uk and 0044 7971561658 or Michael Natzler, HEPI’s Policy Officer on m.natzler@hepi.ac.uk or +447539 664757
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