Universities have long led the way. There is a myth that people in Britain over the last 10 years spontaneously decided to massively increase their consumption of Fairtrade products. The truth is that activist groups pushed universities, schools and churches to change their procurement. Millions of cups of coffee switched in the space of around two years. The Fairtrade companies were able to invest their supply lines and in improving quality. Graduates started to demand that supermarkets too sell fairly traded goods, and supermarkets in turn saw from mass sales in these public sector and community institutions that they couldn’t resist the trend. They too switched. Hundreds of thousands of people began to be able to lift themselves out of poverty.

And so it is that the People & Planet Green League of universities, out in today’s Guardian, is about so much more than universities. Because if these institutions are failing to meet the carbon reductions that their own scientists have calculated are necessary, then even those who ought to be leading are failing.

The Climate Change Act requires 34% emissions reductions by 2020. Yet since 2005, university carbon emissions have actually risen. This is despite some significant institutional changes. People & Planet student groups have successfully pushed for dedicated environmental staff at universities across the country. They have secured ambitious policies, often with clear targets.

But the delivery is simply lagging behind. The reasons for this vary hugely: for some institutions, climate change is a tick box, others do understand it is a ‘challenge to unite a generation’. Many sit in between these two extremes: people care, usually. But they are failing to prioritise. They have set their targets, and they are working towards them – sort of. But they aren’t considering the impact of everything they do, and many don’t seem to have appreciated the significant changes they will need to make in order to meet the targets that they accept are, quite simply, necessary.

With an important role in public life, and with savage government cuts, this may seem understandable. But which institution doesn’t have other pressures? If our university communities – which are mostly populated by a generation who could live to see the worst nightmares of climatologists unfold – can’t find the time or the resource to make the changes that are needed, then who will?

And there are some institutions genuinely showing the way. Nottingham Trent – who top the league this year – have shown that carbon reduction doesn’t have to be painful. Their state of the art video conferencing facilities mean that academics don’t have to get up at 5am and yawn in the yellow light of East Midlands Airport in order to deliver papers at international conferences. Their buildings have been designed to make use of natural light. This reduces the need for energy, but also means their academics aren’t so much buried in libraries as basking in them. But this is an exception rather than the rule. The sector as a whole needs to learn.

Similarly, the government need to buck up their ideas. They may tell others to reduce our emissions. But when it comes to the public sector, they have to lead the way. David Willetts needs to do much more to help universities show that our climate targets are achievable. Yes, this will be hard work. Yes, it will at times seem impossible. But for my generation, carbon cuts are a necessity. And it is the job of politicians to make the necessary possible.

Adam Ramsay

About Adam Ramsay

Adam is Co-Editor of Open Democracy UK and a green activist based in Edinburgh. He co-founded Bright Green in 2010.