In their efforts to assume their responsibility to the planet, how do universities preserve the spirit of global connection that is so essential to research and learning in the modern world?
At Lancaster University, sustainability is at the heart of what we do. Our wind farm generates around 14% of the university’s electricity every year, our campus received a green flag award for 10 years in a row and we offer incentives to support our staff to travel sustainably and affordably.
We are ranked seventh in the UK and joint 26th in the world in the new QS World University Rankings: Sustainability, which measures and compares the sustainable impact of universities worldwide.
Nevertheless, we recognize that more can be done.
In 2020 we declared a climate emergency with the aim of becoming carbon neutral across key areas by 2035 and this commitment is at the heart of the university’s recent strategic plan, which outlines sustainable changes we promise to make in response to an increasingly resource-constrained world.
We are making strong progress and are now one of the highest producers of renewable energy of all UK universities, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
We are not alone. Universities around the world are taking their commitment to the planet more and more seriously and linking that commitment to strategy and action.
Across the sector, while we see a bold commitment to reducing scope 1 emissions, direct emissions such as fuel, and scope 2 emissions, indirect emissions from purchased energy such as electricity, we see much more tentative steps around scope 3 emissions, indirect emissions such as travel and buy products and services. Why is that?
In a recent report by Universities UK International, Abigail Whiteley reported on positive developments surrounding the climate crisis in the higher education sector, namely:
• Between 2021 and 2022, the proportion of our member universities committed to net zero targets under scopes 1 and 2 increased from 61% to 75%.
• Between 2021 and 2022, the proportion of our member universities committed to net zero targets under Scope 3 increased from 53% to 59%.
• Between 2021 and 2022, the proportion of our member universities committed to reducing Scope 3 emissions has risen from 5% to 6%.
The problem of travel
So, what do these numbers tell us? In the case of scopes 1 and 2, there is of course a greater ownership of the direct carbon emissions, which are more sensitive to technical and technical solutions.
Scope 3 is more about influencing suppliers and changing behaviour. No better example of this complex challenge is that of carbon emissions related to travel, which make up a very large part of the universities’ carbon economy.
A recent analysis and Nature illustrates the contradiction between the mission of universities to educate and exchange knowledge (including about sustainability) and the associated impact on the planet by pointing to the impact of a recent conference of the American Geophysical Union – the world’s largest Earth and space science conference: “We estimate that its 28,000 delegates traveled 285 million kilometers there and back – almost twice as far as the distance between the Earth and the Sun. In doing so, they released the equivalent of around 80,000 tonnes of CO2 (tCO2e). This is about three tonnes per scientist, or the average weekly emissions of the city of Edinburgh.
So, what can we do about it?
Interestingly, for the European counterpart of this meeting – the annual general meeting of the European Geosciences Union (EGU), which attracts a significant 15,000 delegates to Vienna each spring – there is a growing shift towards surface travel and away from the more carbon-expensive air travel. It even has its own #TraintoEGU social media hashtag.
Similarly, for an international collaboration of ~500 people working on an experiment in Japan, collaboration meetings were based on two hubs: Tokai Japan and CERN Geneva. Joint meetings were connected in the (European) morning with the two hubs via Zoom; more specialized meetings were in the (European) afternoon or (Japanese) morning and were tailored to be relevant mainly to those on a particular continent.
It’s just one model that could potentially help reduce flights and therefore carbon emissions and, to encourage this approach, Lancaster University has launched a new Travel Decision Tree designed by the Lancaster Environment Center to question the imperative to travel and encouraging digital alternatives to complement sustainable travel choices when international mobility is required.
But staff travel is only a fraction of the challenge when we think about international student mobility, which is perhaps why so many universities hesitate to set targets for Scope 3.
This is where transnational education can play a key role in providing alternative choices for international students.
Lancaster is a global university with a network of overseas campuses in China, Germany, Ghana and Malaysia, offering validated Lancaster degrees. Our campuses form a key part of our global community, with a third of our undergraduates studying overseas and a strong mobility program that equips our graduates to become truly global citizens.
We are now looking to extend this global Lancaster offer to Indonesia, providing the opportunity to access our degree programs without the need to travel internationally.
While we have established new connections between our individual campuses over time, the pandemic travel restrictions and climate conditions have become two major accelerators of digital connectivity, which is now a central part of our efforts to manage scope 3 travel emissions towards . our new sustainable travel guide.
Since the beginning of 2020, we have established a number of personalized digital platforms that allow our students to experience the benefits of internationalization without having to travel.
• Annual Undergraduate Research Conference: a dedicated online forum that takes place every March and brings together students and staff from all strategic partners.
• [email protected] University: a week-long, hybrid festival with 39 events, including a student-led webinar contributed by over 100 staff and students based in China, Germany, Ghana and Malaysia.
• Future Leader Experience and Global Leadership Forum (co-host): two suites of development programs designed for students from home and overseas campuses that provide opportunities to develop leadership skills and engage with senior leaders from various industries.
• Digital Classrooms: a cross-campus learning initiative focused on globally relevant and locally distinctive issues, in development with staff from global campuses.
To support these initiatives, we have deployed comprehensive online training material, entitled ‘Embrace Digital’, to ensure that the project is inclusive of our staff and students at our global locations.
Although not carbon neutral, this digital connectivity enables the reduction of the carbon intensity of international activity, increases accessibility for participants, as well as providing a new model that transforms global engagement.
Our sector, like many others, faces an existential challenge in responding to the climate emergency, but by sharing solutions in the spirit of open learning and collaboration – at which universities excel – we can lead the way in responding .
Professor Simon Guy is Pro-Vice-Chancellor Global (Digital, International, Sustainability) in the Vice-Chancellor’s Office at Lancaster University, United Kingdom. He recently spoke on this topic at the recent Going Global Asia Pacific conference.