The nights are drawing in and the leaves on the trees are yellowing, heralding not just the return to school of millions of students, but also the proximity of the pivotal Conference of Parties (COP26) to be held in Glasgow in November. With policy-makers from 200 countries attending, its implications will be far-reaching. But Glasgow is not the only hotbed of climate action.

The Youth Summit, hosted in Milan this week, and the Conference of Youth (COY16), hosted in Glasgow in October, have been considered as mere amuse-bouches ahead of the real deal. However, their impact shouldn’t be underestimated, given the role of the younger generation in the fight against climate change. This generation is very aware of climate-related risks and very concerned about them, as demonstrated by school strikes and the 15 previous iterations of the COY. However, levels of awareness remain widely disparate, and even the most vocal youth need the tools and knowledge to make the right decisions to drive change in their futures.

More than ever before, the education sector is expected to train future generations on sustainability issues.

While universities and colleges are only responsible for a small fraction of the national emissions, their indirect impact on the rest of the economy is huge, as they are nurturing the decisions makers of the future.

Tom Parrott, Head of Energy & Sustainability at the University of Surrey, explains: “sustainability used to be exclusively taught on sustainability modules, but in the next curriculum review we will include it on every single course. Every Surrey student should leave the university understanding the sustainability impact of choosing a certain path, and what they can do to address these impacts in their future careers”.

In a recent survey, 95% of Surrey students and staff said that sustainability should be one of the key considerations for universities in the UK, and 80% said that good sustainability credentials would make a University a more attractive place to work and study.


Another key contribution of the Education sector to global decarbonisation is made through their research activities.

This includes advancing knowledge on climate science, but also working on practical problems, like the insulation of a university’s own buildings. The insights gained on-site can then be used to reduce the university’s impact, but also be shared with local communities and other universities as a tangible research output.

Tom says, “all the research we do has a community impact. For example, our academics are currently feeding into the Zero Carbon Guildford project, which aims to build a stronger understanding of the climate emergency, and what the local community can do to address it”. Surrey students also actively contribute to the research effort, participating in hackathons where they generate ideas to help solve the world’s environmental crisis.

Finally, the Education sector must participate in the global effort by decarbonising their own operations. Some institutions are already setting net zero targets, with many targeting 2030, and a few ambitious ones reaching for 2025, such as Kings College London. However, they need to ensure that these targets are viable and achievable.

Achieving net zero emissions is complex, but the journey of each university can be facilitated by sharing best practices and developing common processes within the sector. A Net Zero journey can be broken down in four steps:

  • Measure emissions in a robust, consistent and transparent way
  • Set targets that are realistic, but also ambitious enough to align with the global goal to limit warming to 1.5⁰ For example, The University of Surrey has set a 2030 net zero carbon target and an annual carbon budget, aligned to the science-based target methodology. Committing to the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is considered as best practice today, as it ensures certain levels of rigour to avoid greenwashing
  • Decarbonise by implementing different activities: reduce energy use, switch to renewable electricity, research into sustainable products or solutions, reduce commuting and travel, source sustainable suppliers, etc.
  • Neutralise the residual emissions that can’t be avoided by actively removing carbon from the atmosphere, for example through high-quality carbon offsetting schemes
  • Engage stakeholders in your sustainability vision, communicate your results transparently and promote best practices.

However, universities and colleges have historically been inconsistent in their approaches. This impedes comparison and collective progress, but also poses a risk to sector credibility and reputation. The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC) has launched the ‘Emissions Alignment Programme’ to mitigate these risks. EAUC’s CEO Iain Patton explains that it will “develop provide a framework enabling peer and student verification of GHG inventories, carbon abatement targets, offsetting targets and neutrality claims”.

At Avieco, we’re delighted to have been invited to join the programme, providing expert advice on carbon accounting and target-setting, and helping the higher education sector to shape its decarbonisation roadmap. As an organisation, we have a wealth of experience in defining decarbonisation strategies for our clients, and we are excited to be supporting our partners in higher education.

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