Radcliffe Camera at Oxford University

The majority of universities in the UK are failing to meet their carbon reduction targets, new research has found. Universities were expected to reduce carbon emissions they directly control by 43 per cent between the 2005/6 and 2020/21 academic years. However, the 2022/23 People & Planet University League, published today, has assesses all 153 UK universities against ethical and environmental criteria, and found that 59 per cent of institutions did not meet this.

Jack Ruane, University League Manager at People & Planet said, “In 2010 the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), Universities UK (UUK), and Guild Higher Education (Guild HE) set out a target of a 43% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020/21 from a 2005/6 baseline, which was also incorporated into the People & Planet University League assessment criteria.

“It is disappointing to see that 59% of the UK universities have failed to achieve this. This highlights the importance of holding the sector accountable via short-term assessments of actual reductions in carbon emissions, rather than celebrating net zero target-setting, which are often vague on how offsetting will be achieved.”

People & Planet’s University League is published annually, and sees universities ranked against their peers for their performance on a range of criteria which for environmental performance and practices on issues such as workers’ rights. Cardiff Metropolitan University topped this year’s table. It is the first time the university has come out in first place, and also the first time a Welsh university has topped the People & Planet League.

Since 2019, Cardiff Metropolitan has made significant improvements on its performance on the environment and ethics, having risen up the rankings from 68th place to 1st place in just three years. According to People & Planet, this is a partly attributed to its major carbon reduction. Cardiff Metropolitan delivered a 65 per cent reduction in carbon emissions between 2005/6 and 2020/1. The university also became the first university in the UK to divest from the border industry.

Eva Spiekermann. Co-Director Migrant Justice and Movement Building said, “It is brilliant to see Cardiff Metropolitan University ranking first in this year’s People & Planet University League. The first UK university to pass a pioneering policy to align its’ ethical investments approach with immigration justice and commit to never invest in the border industry, Cardiff Metropolitan sets a strong precedent for others to follow by taking proactive steps to address one of the most defining issues of our times; migration. Divestment from the unethical border industry is crucial, considering the extent to which this industry is implicated in the violence and human rights abuses towards people migrating and seeking safety across the world.”

The UK’s elite universities have performed less well. Just two Russell Group universities – the University of Exeter and University College London – were in the top 10 of the People & Planet League. The University of Oxford has fallen 16 places in this year’s league table, and the University of Cambridge fell two places.

Among the areas that People & Planet assesses universities on is their commitment to ending their relationship with the fossil fuel industry. As such, the 100 UK universities that have declared they will divest from fossil fuels receive points in the table. However, People & Planet argued that these commitments need to go further – noting that only one third of universities have a commitment to fully screen out all investments in fossil fuels formally written into institutional policy.

Laura Clayson, Campaigns Manager for Climate Justice said, “Despite 100 UK universities having now publicly announced the exclusion of fossil fuel companies from their investment portfolios, just 60 have enshrined this commitment in a valid policy document. Concerningly, this is a significant drop from 76 last year. This – coupled with a sector where only 28% of universities publicly list their investment holdings – displays the importance of the People & Planet University League as an annual accountability mechanism. Severing investment ties with the fossil fuel industry is an important first step for universities to act upon their responsibility to communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis and fossil fuel extraction impacts. We hope to see a sharp increase in policy exclusions in next year’s League in line with this.”

Similarly, just four universities – Birkbeck, Glyndŵr University, the University Bedfordshire and University of the Arts London have committed to end allowing the fossil fuel industry to recruit students on their campus.

J Clarke, Co-Director of Climate Campaigns at People & Planet said, “With significant movement in the 2022/23 People & Planet University League ranking it is clear that complacency is not an option for institutions seeking to perform well on ethics and sustainability criteria. One key area that UK universities must take action on is ending recruitment relationships with oil, gas and mining companies, highlighted by only 3% of the sector having implemented such policies in the year’s ranking. It is vital that we end the recruitment pipeline into the industries most responsible for the climate crisis, and universities meet that challenge urgently.”

University of Bedfordshire is the highest ranking institution in England in this year’s table. Meanwhile, Edinburgh Napier University is the highest Scottish university, and Ulster university the highest in the north of Ireland.

Professor Andrew Church, Pro Vice Chancellor and sustainability lead for the University of Bedfordshire, commented: “It’s very pleasing to be placed first out of 125 institutions in England as it really hones in on our student and staff willingness and commitment to living and learning sustainably. Universities and other educational outlets play a key role in influencing change and community mind set around important issues such as the environment, climate change and sustainability.”

The People & Planet League ranks universities using detailed criteria in 14 separate areas. The areas monitored by People & Planet are:

  • Policy and strategy
  • Environmental auditing and management systems
  • Managing carbon
  • Sustainable food
  • Ethical investment and banking
  • Ethical careers and recruitment
  • Staff & HR
  • Workers’ rights
  • Staff and student engagement
  • Education for sustainable development
  • Energy sources
  • Waste and recycling
  • Carbon reduction
  • Water reduction

People & Planet is the UK’s largest student activist network campaigning on the climate crisis, human rights and global justice. The full People & Planet League table can be found here.

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Image credit: Maupertius – Creative Commons