How Does Oxford Compare to Universities Leading on Climate Action?

Oxford SU
Oxford SU
Aug 20, 2019 · 7 min read

by Kaya Axelsson
Vice President of Charities and Community

On Monday, Goldsmiths, University of London announced a commitment to become carbon neutral by 2025. Included in their plans is a move to provide courses on climate change for all students, a ban of beef and single-use plastic in university cafes, and divestment from fossil fuels by the end of the year.

This announcement is exactly the kind of climate action that universities should have taken a decade ago; nevertheless, the initiative shows great leadership. It is no coincidence that it comes now after teens across the globe have spent every Friday of the last year on strike over the climate crisis. Young people getting ready to apply to university couldn’t be more clear that climate leadership is a top priority to them.

So, how does Oxford compare on climate action next to universities like Goldsmiths which are taking the lead?

Carbon Neutral by 2025

Goldsmiths raised the stakes by announcing a plan for carbon neutrality by 2025. By comparison, Oxford has upped its previous goal of cutting emissions by 33% by 2021 and is now committed to halving emissions by 2030.

Goldsmiths: To go Carbon Neutral by 2025

versus

Oxford: To reduce Carbon Emissions by 50% by 2030

However, when evaluating carbon targets, it is important to distinguish between carbon neutral and 0 carbon. Carbon neutral implies the use of carbon offsetting — investing in carbon-emission reductions such as tree-planting or renewable energy elsewhere to make up for the direct emissions of an organization. To go carbon neutral by 2025, as Goldsmiths plans to, would likely require Oxford to carbon offset. Instead, Oxford’s targets are based on real emission reductions possible within the scope of the university, not elsewhere. These are, at least, well accounted for and honest targets. Additionally, to be fair, Oxford University is significantly larger than Goldsmiths, which hosts just over 8,000 students compared to Oxford’s 23,000.

Still, halving emissions by 2030 is not nearly ambitious enough for Oxford to even be in alignment with the scientifically out-of-date international Paris agreement targets made in 2015.

What is stopping Oxford from decarbonising sooner?

One of the reasons Oxford may be slow to decarbonise is its lack of central leadership. Oxford is split into many different colleges and departments. In order for the University to meet emissions targets, it has to get all of these independent entities to align with plans to reduce their carbon footprint. Current central university leaders struggle to mandate such change across the many independent institutions which make up Oxford. In essence, like many climate challenges, this is a collective action problem — but that is a poor excuse for Oxford not meet the scientifically determined, necessary targets in the face of the current climate crisis. Some colleges and departments are ahead of others on emissions reduction plans, and may be able to act as leaders to the others.

In response to this challenge, the Oxford SU, in coordination with environmental student organizations, will host the university’s first ever climate assembly at the start of this year. This will bring together many different leaders and stakeholders required to accelerate plans to decarbonise facilities across the university, and hopefully aid the important work of the sustainability department to achieve and raise the university’s goals.

Climate Curriculum

Goldsmiths is also ahead of Oxford in recognising that they must prepare their students to tackle the climate challenges of the near future. In response to student demand, Goldsmiths is reviewing how it can provide a climate curriculum to its entire student body. In contrast, many departments at Oxford fail to include any mention of climate in their curriculum. While select departments, such as geography and natural sciences have robust programs teaching on climate some, which you would expect (including my department of politics), fail to prepare students to navigate the many societal transitions that the climate crisis brings. This disparity is not for lack of demand from students. For three years, students and allied professors from the Oxford Climate Society have lobbied their administration and departments with little response. In the end, students self-organised a Dumbledore’s Army-style School of Climate Change, which is free to any student at the university. The course runs throughout the regular eight weeks of term, and students balance it with their existing course loads. In clear demonstration of demand, the course has been oversubscribed by 300 percent each term. The student society is looking to expand the capacity, but the student the leaders worry about how much more they can ask of the generous pre-eminent climate scientists, economists, and policy professors who provide the teaching hours for free.

Goldsmiths: To Provide Climate Curriculum to All Students

Versus

Oxford: No General Climate Curriculum; Students Organizing their own Course Curriculum which Dedicated Professors Teach for Free

This initiative is an example of the best that Oxford has to offer: self-motivated students, seeking knowledge at all costs and top-rate professors, passionate enough to teach without remuneration. It also demonstrates what may be a gap between the urgency felt by students over climate change and that of the University’s academic leadership. Students feel that that if they don’t educate themselves about the climate crisis they won’t be ready for the many ecological, economic, and social challenges that they will have to navigate in their careers. Some students go so far as to suggest that the degrees they are reading for are slipping into irrelevance without tutors who have fully considered the implications of climate change for their topics.

A Ban on Beef

Goldsmiths’ ban on beef, while controversial to some, follows from research that has demonstrated the outsized resources required to raise, process, and transport cows for consumption.

Oxford has not considered a ban on beef, though perhaps it should. Instead, much of Oxford’s leadership to reduce meat consumption has come from students who have voted to host Meatless Mondays at their colleges and signed up to the SU’s veggie pledge. According to last year’s voluntary veggie pledge, 15,000 animal lives were spared and over 50 tonnes of CO2 saved. While this effort demonstrates incredible commitment and care by students, when put into context, 50 tonnes is small potatoes compared to Oxford’s total annual carbon emissions which is closer to 50,000 tonnes of CO2.

Goldsmiths: University-wide Ban on Beef

Versus

Oxford: Student-led Meatless Mondays in College Halls & Student-led Veggie Pledges

If initiatives to reduce meat consumption were institutionalised across the university, the impact would be much greater.

Ethical Investment and Divestment

In addition to all of its institutional reforms, Goldsmiths committed to divest from fossil fuels on an incredibly short timeline.

Goldsmiths: Full Divestment from Fossil Fuels By 2020

Versus

Oxford: No Plans to Divest their £10 million in Fossil Fuels

At present, Oxford University has no plans to divest from fossil fuels despite almost ten years of campaigning from students, faculty, and staff. When pressed about how they plan to leverage the power of their investments to catalyze change in the energy industry, Oxford’s endowment managers are vague and intransparent, touting an unspecified due-diligence process and reiterating that the exposure to the fossil fuel industry is only 2.2 percent of their overall portfolio. Students have argued that 2.2 percent of the total endowment is still a significant number, amounting to over £10 million.

All in all, while Oxford is not yet following the example that Goldsmiths has admirably set, there is demonstrated will from the Oxford community to achieve something as groundbreaking.

Last year, Oxford climate groups campaigned tirelessly for more ambitious action from the university. They organised weeks of meetings, events, and demonstrations, urging Oxford to

- invest more in decarbonization and sustainability efforts,

- expand the climate curriculum,

- switch to sustainable suppliers in university cafes and improve vegetarian and vegan options,

- and harness the power of the university’s investments to hold the fossil fuel industry to account for the harm done to present and future generations.

Oxford is a powerhouse of research, student engagement, and innovation on climate and has every opportunity to put these resources into practice between the walls of its own halls. At the moment the university has much work to do to catch up to leading UK universities on climate governance. Last month, People and Planet produced a report measuring universities’ climate leadership across a number of indicators, from sustainable food to water and carbon usage. Oxford came in 45th across 145 institutions, a ranking that will not be lost on climate conscious applicants.

Not even Oxford’s prestige will shield the university from the need to rise to the greatest transition in human history. Its students are busy at work ensuring that the necessary action comes sooner rather than later.

If you have any questions or want to work on any of the reforms mentioned above please feel free to reach out to me at vpcandc@oxfordsu.ox.ac.uk. Also, check out the green impact project to find out how to get more involved with sustainability efforts at Oxford.

According to a 2019 YouGov survey, close to half of 18- to 24-year-olds chose environmental issues as one of the nation’s three most pressing issues.

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