Universities, estates teams, and COP26

08 October 2021      Martin Higgs, Communications Officer

The forthcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP26: Glasgow – 31 October to 1 November 2021) provides a focus for everyone – individuals, organisations, societies – to reflect on their climate change position and to learn more about the things we can all do to support the international activity on this agenda.

After another year of extreme weather events around the world, the recent (August 2021) publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report makes it abundantly clear that climate change is here, it is man-made, and that the most enormous whole-society effort now needs to be brought to bear if we are to achieve the goals stated in the 2015 Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrialised levels, and preferably 1.5°C. That means every business, every organisation and where they are able to do so every individual joining together in a concerted effort. Within the UK Higher Education sector every university is already highly engaged on this issue, but recent research (‘Decarbonising Heat Networks in University Estates’, July 2021) carried out by ADE (the Association for Decentralised Energy) on behalf of AUDE and SAUDE - the Association (and the Scottish Association) of University Directors of Estates – points to a stark truth. While the UK government has been among the first to establish a clear national target of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, which in turn has encouraged others including local authorities and universities to make their own similar commitments, it has not yet used every lever at its disposal to draw together the required whole-system approach. It urgently needs to do so.

Andy Nolan, Chair of the AUDE Sustainability Advisory Group said: “There is a fantastic opportunity for the Government to make inroads to the UK’s carbon emissions by supporting large organisations like universities. For instance natural gas is responsible for around 60% of carbon emissions in the HE sector and considerable barriers remain for universities to move to low carbon alternatives. Whilst amazing work is being carried out across UK HE in everything from climate science to the practical delivery of new energy-efficient technologies, universities need a public policy framework that gives long term confidence in alternatives to gas, the financial resources for infrastructure investment and the cross-sector links into other public or private sector organisations that would facilitate collaborative action, to achieve the 2050 goal, which is now less than 30 years away.”

Our universities are keenly awaiting the results of COP26, to see if the UK government’s major themes for the conference – around mobilising private finance, collaboration across civil society on shared solutions and the global push towards net zero – lead to concrete actions that enable sustainable campuses for the long term. Collaboration across the HE sector is already coming in many forms, including UUK’s long-standing work to connect and inform on this agenda, and the EAUC’s Race to Zero initiative. In university estates teams we recognise that we are part of this enormous, shared task. 

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